The activist’s prison

by T Zami | Published: 00:43, Mar 26,2019


THE recent DUCSU elections brought to fore certain problems in the realm of activism. The various leftist organisations failed to close ranks while left-liberal activists shunned the traditional left and instead kept faith on the non-political platforms such as the independents, i.e. the swatantra (independent) panels or candidates. The panel led by Auroni Semonti Khan stirred hope and garnered support from the liberal intelligentsia, whether full-hearted or half-. The so-called Committee to Protect the Rights of General Students, hailing from the quota movement, also had a certain apolitical veneer, and had an unmistakable base of support among ordinary students. As the results were announced, the leader of the quota movement was enthroned ceremoniously in an act of overcompensation, to preside over a league of status quo activists. The results created much consternation among both status quo ideologues and the resistance camp. For status quo ideologues, it was a question of historiography: for the leaders of the quota movement were once maintained to be belonging to the fascist right. Now that the same leaders were ennobled by the status quo itself, the question was to rewrite or not to rewrite. The past kept hanging in the balance for a while until it swung to legitimise the present: absolving facts were dug up about the crowned un-king to justify the eventuality. For the resistance camp it was, if we exaggerate a bit, momentarily, an identity crisis: if we compromise, when were we revolutionary? The question inevitably comes up as the dust settles: What did the independent camp stand for? It is a name standing in for the nameless, with all the virtues and vices of half-articulated amorphousness.
Many perceived the DUCSU process as one of those elections that had the grace to bow to the will of the sovereign rather than that of the unwashed masses, or the nondescript students. There comes the question: suppose the entire panel that would be elected in a due process were allowed to be elected by the powers that be: would that be a fair election, or would the very conditionality of ‘green signal’ nullify the procedural justice and fairness? This reminds us of the classic metaphysical question of free will. When we act or choose, do we act according to divine will in a preordained manner, or do we indeed have free will? There comes the half-arsed compromise solution of mainstream theology: probably we can only choose what has been preordained or sanctioned by the divine.
Then came the acclaimed author-cum-activist Arundhati Roy, celebrated for her moral courage and evocative critiques. The activists of Dhaka swooned over her with a telling desperation. As the left has come to an impasse, individual activism has populated the void. Activism is predicated upon a sense of protagonism for demonstration effect as well as a sense of vicarity. Vicarity refers to an imaginary access to the other — most clearly in the realm of emotion or empathy. The ‘je suis…’ slogan pithily captures the vocal vicarity of the molecular activist. In representational activism, the activist assumes the vulnerability of the subaltern. The individual, vicarious activist has a sense of disinterested action for others. The Kantian categorical imperative is there: you shall do what you consider worthy of being a universal rule. The model plays out best when the activist has a global prestige and is thus unassailable: with her invulnerability she stands for the vulnerable. No one is unassailable, however, in our jungle.
To rehash old leftist critiques of individual activism: there is also a rejection of positive programmatic politics, in the sense of devising a future-oriented programme of transformation. The ethic of ‘critique’ is fixated on negating the present, come what may, just as the ethic of ‘resistance’ per se is a form of negative, reactive power. The activist is a non-violent, beautiful soul imbued with innocence and thereby vested with moral power predicated upon her powerlessness. At its worst, such a vocal micro-activism is reduced to reacting to the headlines, reduced to the passivity of a laboratory rat reacting to electrical stimuli in a semi-conscious daze, with no memory, strategy, or organisation. In the activism mediated by social media, the activist directly speaks to the social whole, being a panglossic fool speaking to an uncertain audience or addressivity. At its best, such speech is protagonistic public-mindedness, keeping the public sphere alive against censorious surveillance. Public discourse in a society of atomised majoritarianism, neoliberal totalitarianism and anomic authoritarianism often races to the lowest common denominator, bringing out the basest impulses in the open.
Let us rather now look at some of the tools deployed by the status quo against micro-activism: The atomising surveillance in our times that doxes and leaks any adversary make all our conversations ‘panversations’, foisting new rules of consistency and new forms of consciousness on us. The recent super-laws crusading against pornography and indecency, for example, create new ammunitions against micro-activists and macro-organisations alike. Entire arsenals of legislation may be created in bad faith with the animus of selective prosecution. A super-law is a selectively enforceable law that is rarely applied because offenses are so common that universal application of the law would be impossible or extremely unpopular. Yet, such laws are made with the very intent of discriminatory and purposive prosecution. Thus, all violators are not punished. Friendly or ordinary violators are spared, while enemies are zealously prosecuted, serving as a pretext for punishing legitimate dissent by other means. Such laws are not laws themselves but an instrument in the service of a higher law: Thou shall not dissent. Such super-laws are is tools of lawfare against subjects.
The repressive power does not belong to the leviathan alone, however, rather there are repressive ideologies and apparatuses within society which are like so many meso-fascisms: thwarting politics of liberty, equality or fraternity in so many ways. These meso-fascism – need I say? – belong to the left, right, and center: their fascistic character does not pertain to their ideological axis but their mode of functionality and power. The discussion below relates as much to the leviathan as to the meso-fascisms.
There is a kettle logic in the polemical horizon today, if you are an enemy or a suspect, you must be a right wing fascist, or a sexual offender, or an anti-national conspirator, and so on and so forth. The logic of inquisitorial suspicion is creepy and implacable: its expanding scope of suspicion comes to cover ever new modes of behaviour and speeches.
Then there is gaslighting, which is a higher-order lying: first you lie, then you question the sanity of those who give the lie to your lies. Like ‘poisoning the well’, gaslighting tactic relies on purposely labeling and reconstructing the identity of others. For propaganda today is more about targeting and governing personal selves rather than propagating ideas or beliefs. It is through incriminating undesirable beliefs that propaganda operates today.
A related phenomenon is ‘Catch-22’: that is a paradoxical framework of rules which will negate itself whenever you try to apply it consistently. A classic case is the question of freedom of speech under an authoritarian regime. Am I free to speak? Yes, for if I say ‘no’, then I am suspected of having things to say that are counted as crimes. I am free as long as I agree to be hoodwinked into saying that I am free.
In a culture of fear, similarly, where a particular group or identity is targeted for persecution, there is a similar dilemma. Are you afraid? If you are afraid, you are a criminal. No one is therefore afraid.
Consider the recent controversy surrounding the acclaimed Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah. The veteran thespian dared to say that he feared for his children in his motherland because if they were identified as belonging to a minority group, their safety would be in danger. A Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker warned that ‘those who say they feel unsafe and threatened in India should be bombed. Give me a ministry and I will bomb all such people; not even one will be spared.’ We are not far off from the strange beast of Sukumar Roy’s rhymes who warns its victim not to be scared, and if the latter feels scared nevertheless, the beast along with its kith and kin will beat him to pulp. In our childhood, we read stories of disguised Rakshashas or demons. They would come out as demons only when their victim would realise them to be demons: like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
A note of optimism at the end: The polls in female students’ dormitories pointed at a status quo blindspot: with or without DUCSU, the female students possess a certain power of resistance that could not be regimented either with political conscription or the fear of shock troops; Or even the distant admonishments of patriarchs of the left or right. It echoed the earlier safe street movement by the children: children standing in for adults, the most innocuous and inviolable mobilising for a cause. It is a tale of societal bad faith, moral failure and desperation; and equally a tale of the irruption of an almost surreal optimism in a deadened zeitgeist: it was the real against realism. Crackdowns that kill the magic of such ‘real’ displace the optimism onto a millenarian plain. The female students’ actions were more restrained, organised and powerful. Like the anti-rape movement that weathered threats and calumny to drive its point home, inoculating itself against the prison of innocence.

T Zami is an author and researcher.

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