A year ends in emptiness and the media will not notice it. India has become a post-truth regime in 2021. If that statement is antinational so be it as a tribute to all the great dissenters languishing in jail. It is Sudha Bharadwaj and Stan Swamy who might redeem this year, says SHIV VISVANATHAN.
Anniversaries or reports of the year-end can either become riotous carnivals or a collection of cliches. Today, the preferred costume for all media and the bureaucracy is the cliché.
A cliché is so comforting, so reassuring that one often feels it is the one humane attitude in a world of crisis.
A cliché demands no sacrifice, no attempt to step out of comfort zones.
A cliché endows you with that wonderful “as is where is feeling” which lets you be what you are regardless of change or crisis. The year 2020 was a year where crisis confronted cliché and cliché won.
Indians realised that the mediocrity of the past is the best response to the future.
Yet in between, one heard anecdotes, confronted ironies, encountered metaphors which provided one with the taste of the new or different. There is a sense that one has not quite understood India as a culture or a society. Let me recite a few anecdotes in that context.
I stay in Chennai, in an area quite close to the Ashthalakshmi Temple. Religious processions are the norm early in the morning. As I stood by the window and watched, I realised that all the men were bare-chested, with generous epaulettes of Vivudi.
The women were colourful and hardly anyone wore a mask. It was as if it was not ritually permitted.
Just then, I noticed the backup truck carrying a large idol and the God wore a mask, a generously large one. The scene reduces you to idiot laughter as you notice Indians are indifferent about themselves but care for their Gods. I talked about it to friends and none of them saw anything exceptional in it.
This was the year of anxieties, private fears and we kept in silent. We do not talk about it. 2020 was the year of silence. Silence hugged cliché in mutual comfort.
India as a society can ambush even an anthropologist.
The next story I heard from a friend of mine, a brilliant young lawyer tired of playing housewife and mother during COVID. She said, “I discovered anxiety as my double during COVID.” Anxiety, she said, was almost like a literary character as substantive as a double she said “it is a not so nice part of me. My anxieties are private fears I have to make public to remain sane. It is more than loneliness. Anxiety keeps nagging you for an answer.” Yet, she said, “her anxieties made her, It kept herself alive”.
This was the year of anxieties, private fears and we kept silent. We do not talk about it. 2020 was the year of silence. Silence hugged cliché in mutual comfort.
India graduates from a textbook. The idea of security to mastery of surveillance, with an entire legal system being innocuously indifferent to it. Strangely an accidental, anecdotal year suddenly appears like a planned sequence with majoritarianism as prelude and chorus.
The third story belongs to a child’s world, a child’s response to my abstract reading of COVID.
As a social response, COVID opens up all the dualisms in our society. All the divides, formal, informal, domestic, public, mainstream, marginal, professional are literally on conspicuous display.
The COVID crisis ritually staged the dualisms we lived by. I remember a childhood story of the cobbler who stitched broken hearts seamlessly. All fears and stigmas were erased effortlessly. I was wondering if my fairy tale self could write an equivalent story of a Shaman or a moral philosopher who could stitch dualisms seamlessly at a child’s request.
Story four is that for all practical purposes, COVID is India’s first real encounter with science fiction. In fact, India’s sense of myth blinds it to science fiction. Our sense of the COVID virus was inane. Iconically was presented as a half imp, half-elf dancing happily. It is like surfing “ring a ring of roses” without realising it is a black death song. COVID lets us encounter the digital without any sense of critique, of doubt or skepticism. Our society takes the digital so much for granted that even corporate PROs look hesitant next to us. Nationalist India feels it has leaped from the development stage to the future in a COVID-induced exercise.
I began with the idiosyncratic and the incidental because this COVID year is different to capture as a narrative.
COVID erases the other events of the year into a flatland of continuities. Take the farmers strike, not even the opposition realises that it is not parties but farmers who are challenging the regime. The regime in fact creates diversion treating it as a Bollywood diversion. As a cynical friend of mine put it, ‘It was as if Kangana Ranaut was invented to handle this period’. She plays clown and the leading public intellectual for the current regime. A sense of idiotic gossip replaces a sense of moral economy or the crisis of democracy. Erasure follows erasure as the year as serial fades into forgetting.
‘It was as if Kangana Ranaut was invented to handle this period’. She plays clown and the leading public intellectual for the current regime. A sense of idiotic gossip replaces a sense of moral economy or the crisis of democracy. Erasure follows erasure as the year as serial fades into forgetting.
In fact, this was the year of Shaheen Bagh and the CAA crisis, a year when majoritarian India graduated to the authoritarian of enclosure and panopticon.
India graduates from a textbook. Idea of security to a mastery of surveillance, with an entire legal system being innocuously indifferent to it. Strangely an accidental, anecdotal year suddenly appears like a planned sequence with majoritarianism as prelude and chorus.
The Rohingya crisis as chapter one of a tale of callous indifference, CAA as consolidating majoritarianism with surveillance. This year also testified to the end of Bollywood as a creator of the myths of modernity, a fable encompassing contradictions. A futile Bollywood expressed its inanity and creativity better outside film than through it.
The farmers’ crisis deepened authoritarianism incompetence and all we have to show is the ineptness of policy. The migrant lost all claims to citizenship as an elite built its hope around an act of conspicuous consumption called Central Vista, an inanity of architecture reflecting an inanity of governance. A wag put it gently, it was as if an unhappy India watched the Maldives as the only paradise a wretched India could afford.
Even utopias have become a secondary affair in this mediocre regime.
A year ends in emptiness and the media will not notice it. India has become a post-truth regime in 2021. If that statement is antinational so be it as a tribute to all the great dissenters languishing in jail. It is Sudha Bharadwaj and Stan Swamy who might redeem this year.
(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice- a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views are personal.)