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Political Writing as Catharsis

Mathew John Mathew John
23 May 2022
Fake news and misinformation spread by people in power in India

“Mad India hurt a lowly hack into writing
Now India has her madness and weather still
For words make nothing happen, mere squiggles
In the valley of hate and killing where the faint-hearted
Would never want to tamper; words are unheard whispers flowing
From ranches of anguish and unbroken griefs; words barely survive
As a way of saying, a Sisyphean mouth.”

(With apologies to W H Auden)

As an essayist and commentator on our fraught social and political world, I have learnt the hard way that even truth and reasoned arguments are not sacred but merely a point of view that is endorsed or rejected depending on partisan considerations rather than on truth per se or the persuasive power of the polemic. Recently, following the publication of an essay titled “Grace under Pressure”, in which I had, inter alia, rhapsodised over the stirring leadership and heroism of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, I got a call from a senior journalist expressing outrage at my distasteful admiration for a dictator who had rigged his own election, put all his opponents in jail, was totally corrupt and an American toady to boot. I was stunned by his outburst; it was late morning, so too early for him to be already in the cups, but even as I wondered at what had provoked this rant, he mentioned Tucker Carlson as his source.

The penny dropped! About the Carlsons of the world, Christopher Hitchens had once made an indecorous but telling remark: “If you give him an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.” The infamous Fox TV host who is a more sophisticated version of our homegrown “nation wants to know” TV anchor, is a specialist in purveying the most obnoxious fake news. And standing by as potent messenger is the omnipresent social media, primed to beam any kind of nonsense universally, in the blink of an eye. Clearly, this is how the journo got his fake snapshot of Zelenskyy which he eagerly embraced as it fed into his ill-conceived ideas about the rightness of Putin’s cause. I sent him a Washington Post article that refuted his bogus belief, but he dismissed it as “capitalist propaganda”.

I have copped other criticism about my writing. Despite knowing that the essays have covered a wide range of subjects, my daughter, millennial and tech-savvy with little patience for any writing above 140 characters, has upbraided me for a lop-sided accent on the “Muslim problem”. How do I convince her that when the major social evil is the persecution of minorities abetted by a majoritarian State, dissipating my energy on other issues would be akin to fiddling with the lyre while India burned?  

Closer to the bone, I’d go bonkers if I didn’t have the safety valve of writing to vent my anguish at what’s happening around us! But if truth be told, those closest and hence most discerning already believe that I am over the edge! 

One irate reader has scolded me for quoting political titans of the past – Winston Churchill, JFK, Nehru et al – whom he calls, “dead wood”. I had to remind him rather sternly that only the illiterate is dismissive of history and its leading players, however venal. Quite a few readers have pointed to omissions in my coverage of a subject, but curiously their criticism is not about any substantive content but of illustrative examples that they felt should have been highlighted. For instance, on my piece regarding racism in India, one wiseacre faulted me for not mentioning the racism in our cinema.

My sociologist hero has, time and again, pulled me up for ending my political essays on a gloomy, despairing note. Generous to a fault even intellectually, she knows by now that only a regime change can bring back the jauntiness to my writing.

The bhakts have been in overdrive, apoplectic that I have been unrelenting in my criticism of the Supreme Leader. One kindly bhakt, however, suggested that I make amends for this biased and unjust portrayal by expounding on the Leader’s vaunted achievements.

Hold your breath as I reel out the alleged accomplishments, as perceived by this God-fearing, credulous bhakt. Upending all international assessments of performance, he believes that the Supreme Leader has transformed India into an economic powerhouse; captured the spiritual essence and ideals of its saints and leaders through the ages; assimilated multiple ideologies and made India strong and independent; strengthened the public sector for an Atma Nirbhar Bharat.

What’s frightening is that millions have bought into the unadulterated hogwash of the Supreme Leader’s triumphs, despite the economic and social conditions being grimmer than ever before. The brazen Leader meanwhile, after bartering away the country’s jewels to the West-centred predators purely to win favour, is unobstructed when he makes the most bizarre claims, including the recent obscenity of feeding the entire world when millions in his country fight for survival! Do we have to plumb the depths that Sri Lanka has, for eyes to open?       

There is no escape from our fractured world of discrete sealed echo chambers where the written word barely makes a dent in converting the diehards to one’s point of view. Why then do I persist in wanting to write what I do?   

George Orwell who knew a thing or two about the writing craft, had observed that a writer’s subject matter is determined by the age he lives in, more so in volatile, tempestuous times. And -- this needs to be underlined -- he was talking of writers in general, not just the great ones but even the lowly, which is a comfort to guys like me. Among the motivations for putting pen to paper, he includes the solipsistic emotion of egoism, that is, wanting to be remembered and talked about; and a desire to write aesthetically, to create a mosaic of words that say it with precision and style.  

According to Orwell, an important impetus for writing is the need to espouse the truth for posterity, and that truth must have a “political purpose”, by which he means that all writing manifests an intent to influence society in a particular way. Yoking truth to politics may seem like a contradiction in terms until you learn that Orwell fervently believed that a socially conscious writer can never be loyal to a political party. 

Seeking authenticity in our world of alternative reality is an impossible task at a time when truth has been overwhelmed by a deluge of falsehoods and truthiness. What hope is there for truth to prevail in a social ecosystem that Orwell foresaw long ago -- the manipulation of history and narrative by the powerful in the sanguine belief that “who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past.”? We now live in an environment where “to tell the truth is a revolutionary act.”  Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the fakery everywhere is all the more reason for the writer of today to be an inveterate truthsayer, despite the odds being stacked heavily against even knowing what the truth is. 

Orwell has brilliantly deconstructed the impelling factors for wanting to write but I daresay he overlooked the fact that deep melancholy and anger can also propel the act of writing which then functions as a kind of salve for an anguished soul. If you can, believe me when I say that sheer angst has been my raison detre for becoming a social commentator. And why not? After all, “the personal is political” -- that revolutionary slogan of the feminist movement and the protesting students in 1968, asserts the significance of individual experience in shaping the trajectory of society. In sum, what the ordinary citizen scribe thinks and experiences also matters.

I remember how it all started, how the ugly communal politics of the nation became an unrelenting dark cloud in my life. Long ago and yet so easily recalled, on 27th February, 2002, I was at a Railway accident site on Allahabad Division when we got news of the horrific Godhra train burning that resulted in the death by incineration of 59 innocent kar sevaks, mostly women and children. As we quietly mourned this terrible tragedy, a young colleague casually remarked: “These bloody Muslims will be taught a lesson!”  A chill ran down my spine because I sensed that his sentiment reverberated through the nation.

The next few days were hell on earth for one community in Gujarat as the 59 Hindu deaths were avenged in an orgy of killing, looting and burning that was unhindered by any kind of State intervention. The Godhra carnage highlighted the depths of evil that individuals can stoop to, whereas the pogrom that followed showcased the diabolical wickedness of a majoritarian polity. 

Capitalising on the illicit bonding of the State and the majority community, the BJP government preponed the Gujarat Assembly elections and predictably won a massive mandate. Although the Sangh Parivar suffered a setback in the 2004 General Elections when the people rejected the “Shining India” hoax of the Vajpayee government and elected the incorrigibly corrupt and feebly secular Congress to power, the Hindutva juggernaut has been unstoppable in the last ten years. The Hindu Rashtra is now firmly established in all but name.

We have been hollowed out as a society, no longer even a pale imitation of the humane, secular democratic Republic conceived by our founding fathers. And shamefully, most of us, merely flaunting the veneer of humaneness and decency, have actually been either active participants or complicit bystanders in the brutal desecration of the Mahatma’s legacy of tolerance and brotherhood. The cultural erasure of minorities is now unannounced State policy. Even as I write, the saffron hordes are readying for an assault on yet another symbol of a terminally ill, secular India – the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi. We knew it would happen, and it has, because not one of us has done anything of consequence  to ward off this cancerous tribalization of our society.

Nobody would contest Ginetta Sagan’s bland denunciation of quiescent fence-sitters: “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” In our benighted country, the Fourth Estate, forgetting its ordained role as chief protector of the vulnerable against the depredations of the powerful, has largely acted as cheerleader of an iniquitous State.

In conclusion, why do I insist on being heard despite knowing that my deeply felt formulations about injustice around us are making no difference? As a tiny mote in the universe of writing, my impotent plight reminds me of the frustrated poet in a Bertolt Brecht poem who is traumatised that his writings denouncing the totalitarian regime are ignored, whereas the books of other dissenters are being burnt. The outraged poet cries:

“Burn me!” he wrote, his pen flying, “burn me!
Don’t do this to me…have I not always told
The truth in my books? And now
I am treated by you as a liar!
I order you
Burn me!”

For personal safety it shouldn’t, but sometimes it hurts that a cruel majoritarian State that jailed Disha Ravi for an innocuous tweet, has ignored my existence as a conscientious objector to tyranny. My only solace is that I have published proof that I am not a collaborator through silence. 

(The writer is a former civil servant. Views are personal)

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