Toxic labels

India needs to learn to communicate with substance

By The Thin EdgeRuchir Joshi
  • Published 24.04.18

In the 1980s, when I was in my twenties, I made no secret of the fact that I found the state's CPI(M) government to be culturally reactionary and Stalinist to the core (Stalinism, in my book, being a strong, pejorative term and not, as some people still use it, a label of praise). Being even more unwise than I am now, I didn't particularly care who knew my political opinions; I said what I had to say and even put it into my reviews and journalism, primarily for this newspaper. Years later, an academic friend told me that a respected theatre and film critic close to the Left Front rulership dismissed my documentary film and newspaper work with the sentence 'Oh, him! He's completely pro-American. You know he's probably in the pay of the CIA.' When I heard this I laughed out loud. The delusion that the Central Intelligence Agency would find the Calcutta of the 1980s to be of any interest had balanced on top of it the lunatic notion that the suits in Langley, Virginia, were also concerned about the city's cultural affairs (the only sphere I knew anything about), and on top of this teetered the hallucinatory drug-filled cherry, that a minor, struggling freelancer would be able to draw on the Agency's coffers in return for State secrets to do with water-colour exhibitions at the Academy of Fine Arts or the latest Brecht production at Max Mueller Bhavan. Nor did it seem to matter that I made no secret of my utter loathing for Ronald Reagan (the then POTUS) and his lieutenant, George Bush (the next POTUS). All that counted was the label someone who didn't like my views on art and cinema could stick on me, even momentarily.

Many years later, visiting Ahmedabad, I attended a family lunch. Sad to have to admit it but most of my family in that city are hardcore fans of Narendra Modi. So when I brought up the horrors of what had happened just a year earlier, in 2002, and asked my relatives about what they felt about the targeted massacre and rape of poor Gujarati Muslims under their ' bhagwan', Narendrabhai, they didn't like it one bit. A long argument ensued, with me on one side and four of them on the other. Finally, one of them let me have it with the worst abuse he could muster: 'Oh! But what can one even say to you! After all you're a communist!' Sorry, but why exactly was I a communist? Because I was from Calcutta, anti-Modi and, therefore, anti-business, QED. I shook my head in wonder - if only someone from Alimuddin Street could have heard this.

If I thought things were bad at the time, they were going to get worse. From the time of the Gujarat bloodshed, many, many of us columnists and journalists (among us at least three Gujaratis I can think of), have minced no words about the horror and disgust generated in us by those killings and their planners, perpetrators and apologists. The standard response of the Modi defenders has been to accuse us of being puppets of the Congress. At the same time, during the Sonia-Manmohan period, whenever we asked why the United Progressive Alliance government wasn't imposing president's rule in Gujarat, removing Modi and carrying out proper, unfettered investigations into the alleged role played by Modi, Amit Shah, Togadia et al, we were accused by the Congress media henchpeople of being elitists who didn't understand how real politics and realpolitik work in this country. Well, now we all understand how that works.

In any case, all of us kept writing, kept asking questions about Gujarat, kept reminding readers about the crimes committed by those in power, both in February-March '02 and afterwards, and we kept doing this regardless of who was in power - UPA-1, UPA-2, UPA-Sunset, Modi-Coming, NDA-here. In the meantime, during the 2011 West Bengal assembly elections, crazy labels began to be attached again. If one pointed out that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s harmad bahini were murderous thugs, one was clearly, blatantly pro-Mamata; if one pointed out that a lot of the Trinamul Congress's foot soldiers seemed to take their inspiration from the Congress goondas of the Emergency, one was clearly a lackey of the Buddha regime. For me the funniest moment came during the run-up to the 2016 state elections here. The famously loud and verbally unstable English-speaking spokesman of the TMC was in a talk show with me and a senior journalist from The Telegraph on a national television channel. At the time, the TMC was worried about the alliance formed between the CPI(M) and the Congress, and panic was clearly causing all sorts of wires to become entangled. At one point the TMC spokes-chappie, (he whose name rhymes with 'loose cannon') started shouting at me and the journalist, 'You're both working for the BJP! You've sold out to the BJP!' The man making the accusation was clearly familiar with my writing and my politics; there was no way he could not have known my opinion of Messrs Modi-Shah and the RSS-BJP; yet truth didn't matter a jot to our friend - as he clearly saw it, his job was to become a whirling, mud-flinging machine, and to see if some of it stuck somewhere, even if for a brief moment.

So aggressive whataboutery, simplistic or false labels, machine-gunned accusations, authorless, whatsapped insinuations, fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, fake-flag media operations, all of these now form the heavy ordinance of political and social warfare but they've been tried out in lighter, smaller, more limited forms for a long time. Before the advent of digital media you couldn't spread a false rumour or fake accusation too quickly but you could trigger the murmuring, letting it domino from ear to ear, hoping it would soon attain critical Chinese Whisper mass and inflict the intended damage to someone's reputation. Now you just have to say something on Twitter or WhatsApp. These channels can also be used for brazen denials and fake assertions: 'There was no rape! There was, in fact, no child! This is an anti-national conspiracy by (fill in the blanks with one of the following) terrorists/leftists/Rohingyas/police officers from the minority community!' In an argument that you're losing, if you can turn the opponent into something you deem wrong, bad or evil, better still if you can dehumanize them, then all the opponent's substantive points can be buried under some label: traitor/Maoist/ jholawalla/anti-business/LGBT/savarna/low-caste/missionary/ jihadi/beef-eater. If you can shout down the other person on TV or switch off their microphone, then they become a voiceless, visual punching-bag for you - 'Look he's here but he's refusing to answer my question! He's refusing to answer a question the nation is asking!'

There is a question all sorts of different people ask me, people who just 'love' the current dispensation, people who are dismayed by what is happening in the country, cynics and pessimists who've hated every government that's ever been in power in India or Bengal: 'Do you imagine everything will suddenly become alright once this Modi government goes?' The answer is obviously a no. On certain dark days the answer has been 'no, I think things could even get worse'. But on most days, the answer would be, 'no, but perhaps we could start climbing out of the deep hole in which we currently find ourselves.' One crucial component of this climbing out will have to be the reversal of this toxicity in the way we speak to each other and about each other. This does not mean that we don't state hard, bitter truths and facts to each other, but the stress will have to be on the 'truth' part, on the 'fact' part, which, of course, leads to the 'nuance' part, which means having debates and arguments where both or all sides can actually have their say based on truths and facts. We have never been good at this as a nation or as a society and we are going to have to learn how to achieve this. No matter when this government goes and which group of parties replaces it, we are going to have to learn how to communicate with each other using substance rather than emotion, using truth rather than ingrained or expedient belief. It's a deep hole we are in, many parties have helped dig it, and the climb out of it will be long and arduous.