Friday, February 22, 2013

Sirens of the past

The condemnation to repeat the past is not limited to those who forget it, as George Santayana had warned, but extends to those who remember it as well, for this selective amnesia is dangerously institutional. When our political propaganda displays not even the most superficial self-respect while spouting Nehru-Mountbatten conspiracy theories and Indus-Vedic clericism, when our history teachers bulldoze forensics with facts and figures, when historians like Romila Thapar are pilloried and demagogues like Subramaniam Swamy are celebrated, one can readily be considered naive, if not dramatic, if he/she fell off their chair in shock! The earnest can at best raise their voice to those high inaudible pitches while the disinterested are content to meekly concede to incremental “progress”.

The overdue return of History to the Humanities from the Social Sciences would go a long way in resurrecting the past alongside its many struggles, material or ideological. The style of narrative history (effectively employed by such eloquent writers as Ramachandra Guha and William Dalrymple) compels readers to juxtapose past with present while challenging them to discern differences besides that distinction. I shall present an example to illustrate the exercise:

Utilize the full range of your imagination to recreate an Indian Courthouse in the city of Ahmedabad on March 23rd, 1922, in which Mohandas Gandhi has just been sentenced for sedition; the incriminating articles in question were those that appeared in Young India, critical of the malfeasance of the British Raj. The audience comprise all sorts from the marginalized lower castes to the highest British nobility, their perspiration either a result of anxiety or ineffective ceiling fans. Gandhi is offered a final statement in an act of imperial generosity. His opening lines must have sounded surprisingly apologetic to patriot and prince alike:

“Before I read this statement I would like to state that I entirely endorse the learned Advocate-General’s remarks in connection with my humble is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me...I knew that I was playing with fire.”

We’re off to the races! Section 124A is still enshrined in our constitution despite the admonition of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951: “Now as far as I am concerned that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place…in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.” Invoking the law to silence activists, journalists and cartoonists and further bolstering the code with a draconian IT act is an exhibition of unmitigated arrogance on our government’s part, not to mention the callous defenestration of historical prescription to do otherwise.

He follows this confession with an audacious challenge:

“I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge, is, as I am going to say in my statement, either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and law you are assisting to administer are good for the people.”

When I read this the first time, I paused in feverish retreat. Here was a scrawny little malnourished Indian, attacking the British oligarchy with nothing less elegant than sardonic articulation, questioning their deepest moral integrity, if any was present at all. Contrast this arresting grade of conviction with today’s unimaginative politically correct equivocation. Few politicians speak with an emphasis on morality, fewer of these are morally upright. The business of preserving and revealing the truth is now, rather overwhelmingly, in the hands of our journalists, who are unfortunately in the hands of our politicians. Of the handful who deny and defy such complicity, one has resuscitated my hope to the brink of optimism- Palagummi Sainath. Here’s his view on the dismal state of our media:

“"It’s not like we’re the good guys and the readers are so crude" - That’s an argument a drug peddler could make: “I’m a decent guy, it's these assholes on the street who want the stuff!” I don’t believe this for a moment! If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what the reader “wants” is the last refuge of every intellectually bankrupt editor known!”

The polemical tone of Sainath (assholes, intellectually bankrupt), I contend, is simply a different style of provocation, much like the affected humility (cheerfully submit, deliberate crime) of Gandhi. These cancel out to reveal inescapable truths; both call a spade a spade in very different ways. As a society, the onus is on us, to rectify our aptitude to read past such ornaments and repellents that can take us to every exalted place but the truth. (A parallel but less pressing inquiry: can I confidently insist that my readers require no such training?)

Gandhi proceeds to summarize a bit of History which I choose not to abridge for two distinguishing reasons: 1) it tells us much about the growth of the man, 2) it is an honest admission of the past which by today’s tendencies to trash, would serve as rich fodder for alleging complicity and treason:

"My public life began in 1893 in South Africa in troubled weather. My first contact with British authority in that country was not of a happy character. I discovered that as a man and an Indian, I had no rights. More correctly I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.But I was not baffled. I thought that this treatment of Indians was an excrescence upon a system that was intrinsically and mainly good. I gave the Government my voluntary and hearty co-operation, criticizing it freely where I felt it was faulty but never wishing its destruction.Consequently when the existence of the Empire was threatened in 1899 by the Boer challenge, I offered my services to it, raised a volunteer ambulance corps and served at several actions that took place for the relief of Ladysmith. Similarly in 1906, at the time of the Zulu ‘revolt’, I raised a stretcher bearer party and served till the end of the ‘rebellion’. On both the occasions I received medals and was even mentioned in dispatches. For my work in South Africa I was given by Lord Hardinge a Kaisar-i-Hind gold medal. When the war broke out in 1914 between England and Germany, I raised a volunteer ambulance corps in London, consisting of the then resident Indians in London, chiefly students. Its work was acknowledged by the authorities to be valuable. Lastly, in India when a special appeal was made at the war Conference in Delhi in 1918 by Lord Chelmsford for recruits, I struggled at the cost of my health to raise a corps in Kheda, and the response was being made when the hostilities ceased and orders were received that no more recruits were wanted. In all these efforts at service, I was actuated by the belief that it was possible by such services to gain a status of full equality in the Empire for my countrymen."

This can be read as either a self-centered nationalistic rationale or an apology for traitorship to the global anti-imperialist struggle; there are still ruffled feathers over such interpretations (that 'revolt' and 'rebellion' are within quotes gives me good reason to believe the latter). But we can be sure that Gandhi was no fool and accepted the logical consequences of what he said. How many of our parliamentary representatives own up to mistakes, confess inner conflicts and accept responsibility for the ills of society? But it begs the question: how many of their electors share any of these traits? Are we setting impossibly high standards by quoting Gandhi? Quite the contrary! If History makes any difference, as we claim it does, we should aspire to making Gandhi’s standards the bare minimum! Conveying my honesty in saying this becomes especially tedious when addressing those who prefix Gandhi’s name with the inordinately lofty title ‘Mahatma’. Elevating a man to such an eminence generally tends to render him and his ideals elusive to both adoption and scrutiny. It also leads to missing crucial ironies in the man’s life: He intended harmony among Hindus and Muslims but insisted  that his disciples chant “Raghupathi Raghava RajaRam” in gatherings and marches. He dismissed western education but articulated supremely in English. He stood for the poor but decided that burning produce was symbolically worthier. He spoke of women’s rights but denied his own dying wife penicillin. He vehemently opposed free market ideas but is on every inflating rupee note worldwide! These are the makings of a man, not a saint, and as Kamal Hassan portrays in his magnum opus ‘Hey Ram’, we do the man, and ourselves, a great injustice by deifying him.

And now comes the true thrust of the speech, an excerpt that can sit by itself and still say all that has to be said:

“I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage, in an armed conflict with him. So much is this the case that some of our best men consider that India must take generations, before she can achieve Dominion Status. She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting famines. Before the British advent India spun and wove in her millions of cottages, just the supplement she needed for adding to her meager agricultural resources. This cottage industry, so vital for India’s existence, has been ruined by incredibly heartless and inhuman processes as described by English witness. Little do town dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness. Little do they know that their miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for their work they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage are sucked from the masses. Little do they realize that the Government established by law in British India is carried on for this exploitation of the masses. No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye...The law itself in this country has been used to serve the foreign exploiter...In my opinion, the administration of the law is thus prostituted, consciously or unconsciously, for the benefit of the exploiter."

Now, simply reread that only this time removing the word ‘British’ and letting ‘the’ refer to mass-globalization/crony-capitalism/UPA-government. Here is an excerpt from Sainath’s collection of rural surveys and reports titled ‘Everybody loves a good drought’:

“A profoundly undemocratic streak runs through India’s development process. Exclusion doesn’t end at the symposia. Peasants are excluded from land issues in real life too.Villagers are increasingly robbed of control over water and other community resources. Tribes are being more and more cut off from the forests and their experiences in contempt.Real development would involve the transformation of the human state to a higher level of being and living. Almost all versions of development accept that. However, such a transformation must have the participation and consent of those affected by it. Their involvement in the decision-making process. And the intrusion on their environment, culture, livelihood and tradition by that process should be minimal.But that sounds too much like work. So you can have a play staged and enacted with all the main actors sitting in the audience- if they are around at all. If reality smells, rewrite the script. Take the current champions of ‘change’. Those shouting loudest about change among the elite are the very people who ran this country for over forty years. If it is in a mess, they had much to do with it.”
When asked about how people can be so insensitive to suffering, he charges our journalists' and readers' inability to make connections. For instance, an eagerly anticipated fashion show and a sudden rise in the suicide rate of cotton farmers is a spatial connection hardly unlike the temporal connections we've been discussing.

Gandhi again:

“The greater misfortune is that the Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe. I am satisfied that many Englishmen and Indian officials honestly believe that they are administering one of the best systems devised in the world, and that India is making steady, though, slow progress. They do not know, a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defence on the other, as emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation. This awful habit has added to the ignorance and the self-deception of the administrators”

Jayprakash Narayan of the Lok Satta party presents, well above the “corrupted souls of men” argument, a more intelligent and progressive thesis, namely that our institutions/systems allow and encourage seemingly "victimless corruption" (Coal-Gate, Arms-Gate, 2G) among the “amorphous whole”. Decentralization of power, incentivizing vigilant reporting, eliminating old electoral practices and exercising swift prosecution are solutions that don’t require you to be a political scientist to understand. But acknowledging that these are even possible requires a more sympathetic stance- our politicians are who we churn out from our institutions, who are elected by vote-banks that comprise us. If our criticism degenerates to cynicism, if we unanimously become anti-establishment, we must always remember, as Narayan puts it, that “we are the establishment!”

Gandhi proceeds to point out the obvious inequity of Section 124A:

“Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence. But the section under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under it; I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.”

And here is Sainath's lament today:

"As early as in 1893, Reuters assigned a correspondent, S.H.S.Merewether, to cover the famine-hit districts of this country. Apart from his reports, this resulted in a book, A Tour through the Famine Districts of India. In it, he wrote that his assignment came about after a request Her Majesty's Government had made to Reuters. The Raj, among other things, wanted to counter the riffraff of the nationalist press. The Reuters man stood up for the Raj. Denouncing the Indian press for its 'sedition', he wrote that 'a censorship of the native press would not only be expedient, but seems an absolute necessity.'It seems extraordinary that so miniscule a press should have had such an impact. More than a hundred years later, a much larger press has failed to do the same. Issues crucial to hundreds of millions of Indians demand its attention. But it has not put the government on the mat."

One can see clearly how history remixes itself. Any further commentary would be patronizing to those who grasp this point and useless to those who haven't.

Santayana's famous warning is part of a larger body of work titled 'The Life of Reason'. It appears in this much more scathing paragraph on mankind:

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird's chirp."

1 comment:

Seeker of Truth said...

The 20-page book chapter 'Salt and The Great Soul '(available in part on Google Books) in Mark Kurlansky's Salt:A World History makes instructive reading filling in an almost blanked out back-story in the history text-book narrative of the salt march, namely the decades of protest against salt monopolies by workers in Orissa.