Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nepal: A Tragedy Made into Farce by Us

(Buddha smiled again, a scene from Nepal after earthquake)

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, said Karl Marx in his views on 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Earthquake is not history in itself though it creates history and changes the existing discourse of history in a given context of its occurrence. Though it does not repeat itself the way history does, the expressions of it in the form of news, pictures and videos in the age of facebook and twitter, make it look like history that repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. An extremely disturbing earthquake in Nepal which took the lives of approximately ten thousand people and rendered contemporary and traditional architecture and cities in mere rubbles should have remained a tragedy in the minds of the people who have witnessed the horrifying pictures from the ground zero. But somehow, Nepal tragedy has now crossed over to the realm of a farce, thanks to the social networking sites.

In 1992, when the first Gulf War took place, French theoretician, Jean Baudrillard argued that it was just a simulacrum, an illusion of war, created by the streaming of CNN images that primarily conveyed the scenes from the war front to the world. Pushing the limits of the logic of theories pertaining to simulacrum, Baudrillard had argued that the war could have been one waged purely in/for the television. We wished his argument was true though later events proved that it was not true. Baudrillard was extending what Walter Benjamin had left half way. Benjamin had talked about the ‘originality’ of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. When an image could have had its identical reproduction, where one could locate the original one, was the issue that had set Benjamin thinking. Between Benjamin and Baudrillard we had the French Situationsit, Guy Debord, who spoke of a society of spectacle where ideas communicated not through words and images but through the meanings created out of images of the actual event. Today, in the case of Nepal tragedy, these three aspects seem to have to play in a big way in the social networking sites, rendering the actual tragedy into a farce.

(from Nepal)

Unlike Baudrillard, I do believe that the Nepal tragedy has occurred and it has destroyed the landlocked country considerably. I believe it not just because I had felt the tremors but because I had also seen real people dying there through television and newspaper reporting. The sense of tragedy prevailed on the first and the second day through television reports and newspaper analysis of data and expert opinion. Then it started turning slowly into a farce. Reason is nothing but the overkill of the event through image sharing and politicizing of these images in the social networking sites. Images came from the people who were trapped, from the journalists, from NGO workers, army photographers, government servicemen who were pressed into service there not only from Nepal but also from other countries like India. Then soon came news and image reports from the foothills of Himalaya where international trekkers were killed due to the avalanches evoked by the tremors.

If Baudrillard was right here, if one had thought so a couple of days after the tragedy nothing could have been said to counter him. Had the tragedy really happened? Or is it a series of images transmitted through the social networking sites, where the actual tragedy looked like an event enacted for the pleasure of cameras. Visuals came as authentic comparisons between the places before the earthquake and after it. Beautiful shrines are destroyed completely and the comparisons have been good enough to shake someone up completely without real tremors. Cities have been razed, roads have been ripped apart, buildings have been cracked and tilted, and thousands of people have been caught within the rubbles. Following these there were simulations and self referential photographs. Benjamin’s theory of challenged authenticity became true not because there have been identical pictures reproduced for convenience but pictures that looked identical from other geographical locations were used for enhancing the tragedy in Nepal. A video footage from Syria was used by some networkers and also a picture from a Bangladesh building collapse was used to highlight the romance of death through certain amount of poetic justice; let even death not do us apart. Nobody dared to ask a disturbing question whether it was a husband hugging a wife or a molester taking advantage of the situation and got killed as heavens came tumbling down in pieces of brick and mortar.

(The Syrian child who took a camera for gun)

In Nepal we also saw how Benjamin was overtaken by Guy Debord, who proposed the idea of a spectacular society where relationship between images created meaning rather than the images or the actual events did the same. The meanings thus created are displaced from the actual truth of the events as two images could be taken from two different angles of the same event and also could convey a different meaning as seen from those perspectives. This is still a legitimate point. But what about those meanings created by the images and their mutual relationship; that means two disparate images could correspond to each other and create a new reality. In the overkill of Nepal images we saw such an onslaught of meanings as different images from different sites created a new reality/truth/meaning enhancing the magnitude of the tragedy helping the feature writers go for another overkill of the same with words. Unfortunately this happened with the misreading of some journalists of the places as seen from the helicopter of the Prime Minister of India, and dubbing them as Dalit villages. Now, we are even forced to doubt the veracity of that image of the PM sitting inside an aircraft. The most interesting thing, at the same time pathetic and curiously stereotypical but passed off as poignant considering the gravity of the situation is the images that look like images that we have seen elsewhere. Recently, a small child from Hama in Syria ‘surrendered’ to a cameraman when he trained the camera at her thinking that it was a solider pointing a gun at her. It was a poignant picture that raised a lot of hue and cry and also interest in both the child and the photographer, circulated widely in the facebook and twitter. Alas, in the Nepal pictures too one could see a series of pictures of children folding hands before cameras seeking help from the sympathetic world secure out there. This was an outright stereotyping of the innocence of kids forcefully made to pose so because there was the famous ‘Syrian’ girl as a frame of reference for the hopelessly unimaginative press photographers (at least some of them).

(a picture from a Bangladesh building collapse circulated in fb as a scene from Nepal)

Forget the theoreticians; the information overkill done by us in our social networking sites itself made the tragedy a farce making a lot of people lose interest in the whole event and leaving the people there to their own devices because we cannot do anything and retiring ourselves into some sort of fatalism. People were pathetic in politicizing the help that our country, India was extending to the ill fated people in Nepal. While the nationalists applauded that the RSS people were going in batches to help the victims in Nepal, most of the newspapers and news channels without showing any sort of journalistic discretion wrote that Mr.Modi led the rescue operations from the front like a commander in chief in a war situation, elevating Modi into a sort of Sylvester Stallone in his First Blood series. We politicized the deaths, help and even the number of army jawans who went there to help the victims of the calamity. It was another war won against the enemies boosting the sagging muscles of our nationalism. Where was Nepal in the whole deal?  In 2004,when Tsunami hit the eastern, southern and western coasts of India, people were imagining the magnitude of the tragedy as social networking sites were not so proliferated in those days. Images came in through television and newspapers, and much later those mammoth waves through youtube videos. Between the tragedy and the image overkill there was enough time to emotionally absorb and logically negotiate the tragedy. In 2001, Bhuj, people waited for televisions and newspapers to talk. Today, Nepal is rendered helpless not only by the devastating earthquake but also by the image and information overkill done via social networking sites. Tragedies are turned into farces quicker than we think. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sitaram Yechury, Jai Siyaram: What We need from You and the CPM

(Sitaram Yechury, the New General Secretary of the CPM)

Sitaram Yechury, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) aka CPM, if we go by his name, should be a darling of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak volunteers whom the youth cadres of the CPM, DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation of India) have been fighting in the streets for a long time. When the right wing fellows see each other they greet the other with this exhortation, Jai Siyaram. The new GS of the CPM has it in him; Sitaram. Siyaram is a complete man, the Lord Ram with his consort Sit/ya. When Sitaram speaks, the right wing fellows cannot just avoid him; how can they defile the lord’s name? His wife misses the honour by a letter; she is Seema Chisti. Had the ‘m’ been ‘t’, there would have been a major crisis in the confrontational politics between the right wing forces and the left wing parties led by the CPM.

Political pundits say that the left parties have made themselves irrelevant in today’s politics as its erstwhile strongholds like West Bengal and Kerala have already gone to Trinamool Congress and the UDF respectively though the history of Kerala’s assembly elections shows that the CPM led Left Democratic Front would come back to power invariably not because they are too good to be avoided but because there are lesser chances of other political alternatives in Kerala thanks to its peculiar political, religious, caste and regional equations. Punjab was another place where the CPM could have thought of staging a better performance but with the AAP touching the root base there, the CPM needs a different approach. The party’s political relevance has been that of a negotiator between the warring factions of the erstwhile Third Front. Now as the chances are gone though the Janata Parivar once again wants to be united and pitch for power in the coming assembly elections in Bihar and in UP before they could throw their hat in the ring for the distant Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

(Jyoti Basu, he could have changed the course of Indian political discourse if he was allowed to become the PM of India in 1996)

‘Historical Blunder’, that was how late Bengal Chief Minister and much revered leader Jyoti Basu observed the toppling of the chances of him becoming the Prime Minister of India as a consensus candidate in 1996 by his own party. History of India would have been different had Basu assumed the role of India’s Prime Minister. The economy that had opened up in 1991 would not have been reversed even if the Third Front was consolidated under Jyoti Basu and such a political and economic discourse would have created a strong opposition in the parliament in due course of time. What AAP would do later in 2013 could have become a reality at least one and a half decade before. A Communist becoming the Prime Minister of the country could have given a new impetus for the CPM to grow nationally with strong representatives coming up in every state supported by lower and middle class cadres and intelligentsia. It would have considerably checked the growth of the right wing fundamentalism in the country. But the theory of equi-distance from all kinds of religious and political formations proved to be a dampner for the CPM. As it was the big brother amongst the smaller left formations, they too could not have followed a different line.

The blunder of the CPM is both ideological and pragmatic. Ideologically, it detested the upper class and wealth while secretly enjoyed the possibility of being in that upper position. The left front under the CPM drew its cadres mainly from the lower middle class and the middle-middle class, feeding them with the idea of class revolution. Often this progressive political outfit used the cadres as cannon fodders than real decision makers. The ideological confusion was palpable amongst the cadres for over two decades as they did not know whether to move towards the open market or completely object it. As everyone is primarily a human being with familial responsibilities and social responsibilities, like any other members in a surviving group they too started looking for easy ways of making money. The recent declaration by the party leadership that the cadres are indulging in liquor and other anti-social activities and also the strong erosion of cadre base in the states like Kerala and West Bengal shows that the cadres are really confused. While the their leaders fight for supremacy like they do in any other party and enter in business deals with film stars and business tycoons, the poor cadres are relegated to the level of mere audience, if not agitators in the streets.

(Red Volunteers- CPM activists marching)

Speaking on the pragmatic front, the CPM followers are no longer led by any egalitarian political ideology. They are led by one single agenda; getting into power. This craving for power is different from the demand that Edassery, the poet had forwarded in his poem. When the Communist party was struggling for the rights of the downtrodden, the poet said that before we reaped the harvest of rice, let us harvest power. Political power was the need of the time to change the life of the downtrodden and bring about social changes. But for the last few decades, the CPM was engaged in power politics right there within the party itself. The bottom to top approach was thwarted for top to bottom approach. In due course of time, the CPM itself started estranging those ultra left wing forces that demanded equal rights and justice. By becoming a bourgeoisie party, the CPM lost the sympathy of the middle class. Religion was another sensitive point where the CPM failed pathetically. While the party spoke of equi-distance (even today it talks about it) two decades back, it did not tell its cadres how it was going to tackle the growing right wing fundamentalism in the country. Religion remains to be a sensitive issue as far as India is concerned and unless and until the CPM leadership tells its cadres what to do with it, it is not going to grow it base. The cadres are confused as they see the CPM leaders sharing platforms with religious leaders to appease the voters from those religious categories. They are really confused about their own religious identities and it is evident in Kerala streets where you cannot distinguish between a RSS agitator and a DYFI or CPM agitator. They almost wear the same uniform, saffron lungis and chequered shirts. This sartorial confusion also translates into both ideological and pragmatic confusion.

(Route March of RSS Volunteers)

Sitaram Yechuri has a major task in his hands if he really wants to revive the dying left parties in India. I am not a political pundit to elaborate upon the available data and also I find it tedious and boring as far as my purpose is concerned. My aim of writing this is to tell Mr.Yechuri how he could turn the party around and create mass base by slowing erasing the fear about communism and communists and also by slowly erasing the lethargy and cynicism that have crept into the very core of the CPM cadres. The only face saving group that still holds the CPM ideology or the communist ideals is the intellectual class of this country to which I also have a virtual membership. As a humanitarian and one who believes in the socialist theory of unto the last, I adhere to the left political theories than those of any other political outfit in this country. AAP is a possibility and it is still a possibility for so many people like me. The intelligentsia however is an oscillating class. They like to be with the cream and the sublime things and people and at the same time they want to be with the milling and toiling masses. They cannot do it on the ground because they have other avenues of consolidating their ideas. They need a platform, a political outfit that would give them confidence to express their ideas. The CPM should become that platform. It cannot be elitist when it comes to the centre or in the business avenues, and later go and preach social revolution to the public in street corners. People have lost belief and interest in that. People would trust Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai than Pinarayi Vijayan or Prakash Karat.

 (The Architects of CPM's failure in Kerala, V.S.Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan)

Ideological and pragmatic clarity is what the CPM cadres expect from Sitaram Yechury as the new general secretary. One cannot mechanically quote from classical Marxist text books and play vote politics. It will not work for long. If Tripura is the last bastion and Kerala is a possible come back platform, both are not going to be lasting for ever if this is the working style of the CPM. One has to ask this question: Are people really interested in Pinarayi Vijayan or V.S.Achuthanandan? Have both these leaders helped change the course of political or cultural discourse in Kerala or in India other than creating factionalism within the party? Have they ever thought what the working class or middle class in Kerala want? Do they think that star studded television programs would sedate and keep the masses forever? Do they think that those who prefer Kairali Channel or Jaihind or Manorama Channel eventually vote for the CPM? The CPM leadership should urgently look at this crucial issue; what the people want? What kind of governance they expect? In a country where the youth population is exceeding the older generation, what would be the CPM’s programs for attracting them to the party? Remember, this is a cafe coffee day crowd sipping coffee, talking romance and yet concerned about the country’s future. This is not the crowd that would come to the streets to get beaten up by the police. May be there are young people who still do it, but they are growing less in number. Nobody is interested in the politics of killing. If you kill a RSS activist, you are not back patted, seriously. Rather, a youngster would feel utter disgust.

 (The sophisticated Indian youth may be stylish and coffee sipping but they are aware of political ideologies)

Another important thing is removing the cloak of hypocrisy. By virtue of being the Communist party, nobody anymore believes that the CPM is Pro-Dalit, Pro-Women, Pro-Queer, Pro-Lesbian, Pro-Gay, Pro-New Work Force, Pro-Youth, Pro-intellectual, Pro-ultra Social activist, Pro-environment and so on. The CPM under the leadership of Sitaram Yechury should take a clear stand on this thing and let the whole of Indian population know about it. It should also make its stance clear on religions, censorship, freedom of speech, land reformation, land regulation, global investment, industrial growth and so on. Nobody will say that the CPM should oppose economic growth. It should make its policy clear and it should be pro-growth and at the same time pro-people. Creating a strong opposition is the most important thing and the need of the time. Sitaram Yechury wants the left parties unite but I would say this unity should not be aimed at sharing power using the old equi-distance theory with the political clowns. This unity should be for creating an opposition in Indian politics. We need to accept the fact that we lack in opposition in Indian parliamentary politics today. Check and balance provisions are created only when there is a strong opposition in place otherwise it will lead to fascism. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) could provide that opposition. And it should also accept the fact that opposition is just about having seats in parliament. Opposition is also about understanding the forces of opposition in the country, politically, intellectually and militantly. It should not join hands with the government to hunt down political dissenters who fight for justice on behalf of the downtrodden in India. Parliamentary politics does not mean that conceding of all its power to dissent and identify with dissent. The Indian youth will follow the CPM and the AAP for sure, if their aim is to create an opposition primarily than capturing power. Once they prove they could ideate on behalf of people and prevent the incumbent government from doing wrong things to its own people, automatically the same people will vote them to power. It needs patience and diligent work, and above all a change of mindset.