The need for Political Correctness

Saswat Pattanayak investigates what it means to be politically incorrect in contemporary times. Is it a ploy to maintain the status quo and further the capitalist cause or is it to give a voice to the truly marginalized?
– Kindle Magazine

If the concerns over free speech are due to AIB controversies, then there is a possibility that those are perhaps not valid concerns after all. The problem with free speech is that the freedom to espouse the contents belongs to those who own the means to circulate them. The question then would be if Bollywood celebrities ever lacked their platforms to express politically incorrect statements.

Whereas political incorrectness must be allowed to be expressed without reservations, the idea that it has somehow lacked platforms in India or elsewhere in the world today could be purely hogwash. In fact, the culture industry in capitalistic societies thrives on political incorrectness – both monetarily and spiritually. Usage of sexist slangs, rape jokes, fat-shaming or skin colorism are not exceptions to Bollywood; they are the mainstay. Although what AIB has aired was deliberately orchestrated to come off as controversial, a careful inspection of its content would reveal a mere continuation of dominant on-screen norms.

An enormously fat child as a reject is not an AIB discovery – it is evident in the industry’s obsession with “six-packs”. A dark-skin being the same as illegal money in Swiss banks is not a surprise statement – even male actors like Shah Rukh Khan endorse fairness as key to their successes. Jokes on how someone “ugly” does not deserve to be dated is not a shocking revelation for the majority – as the leading actors have to inevitably exceed the standards of beauty. Alia Bhatt may not take offense to being called ignorant and silly by her male co-stars – but women across the globe are anyway proclaimed as intellectually inferior by the male academic superstars. Deepika Padukone may be used to humors that reduce her to be a “good thing that Ranveer Singh was in” – but commodification of women is among the most profiteering industries today. Parineeti Chopra may have genuinely got scared of getting metaphored into a gang rape victim that night – and yet, rape as a funny metaphor is a constant that refuses to die – from usage by stand up comedians to supreme court judges. Raghu Ram being imagined as a wife-beater, Karan Johar imagined as a casting couch enabler, Ranveer Singh imagined as the pervert photographer of an actress who in her erstwhile feminist standpoint had pleaded the country to stop humiliating her – suddenly all this is good humor now, because the industry bigwigs are expecting us to get matured. Shouldn’t we have also matured into accepting Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “boys will be boys” statement regarding rape, if it is alright to laugh at the manly Ranveer Singh getting a hard-on from pepper spray by his next conquest?

What is amiss in the mature argument is that, none of these are objectionable because they are simply politically incorrect or because a society lacks a sense of humor. They are objectionable because a bunch of elitists continue to find these funny at the expense of those who are victimized by actual acts of domestic violence, sex discriminations and standards of beauty that effectively and unjustly exclude majority of people from the mainstream culture industry. AIB is no big deal though, only because it was not a breakthrough – it was just more of the same. It was just as objectionable as was Yo Yo Honey Singh’s poetry in his “Choot” volumes; little surprise that the rapper was instantly embraced by the industry that met its match in avowedly celebrating misogyny.

Roots of Roast:

Political correctness and political incorrectness are different shades of the same spectrum. They are not rigid, fixed unchangeable notions – indeed quite the contrary. Like culture itself, they form an unending line. What used to be politically incorrect a few decades ago is perhaps politically correct today, and vice versa. It is the content, the impact, and most importantly in the Marxist sense – the beneficiaries of certain consciousness that should determine what is to be considered politically correct or politically incorrect. It is upto the artists themselves to decide their directions, and to that extent raising hue and cry over AIB is redundant at one extreme and reactionary on the other. But to surmise that AIB discourse is in a victimized state crying out to be heard by the people, lest artistic freedoms will meet untimely deaths, is a ridiculous exaggeration.

Contents aside, the form also needs to be reexamined. Roasting might be a new phenomenon to hit Indian consciousness, but so has been rap. The tragedy is we perhaps have imported the worst of both forms while showcasing them to be the best we can be, that we need to the urge to defend what went for roasting on AIB. What was on display without anyone paying tribute to the roots of it (Bollywood surprise!) has been historically called “signifying”, “joining”, “snapping” and “playing the dozens” – deeply rooted in African-American heritage. Actively participated by the enslaved to amuse and distract themselves, they have accumulated political coinage and unique underground significance over the decades among the oppressed of America. Just like the use of N-word, some of the snaps may have derogatory feel to them, but the cultural usages by the specific groups of people lend them the context that needs to be respected, especially if the media are all agog over the novelty of this art form.

Consider rapper Biz Markie’s snap: “Your mother’s hair is so nappy, she has to take painkillers to comb her hair”. Or, actor Doug E. Doug’s snap: “Your family is so poor, they go to Kentucky Fried Chicken to lick other people’s fingers.” Or, comedian Nipsey Russell’s: “Your family is so poor, the roaches have to eat out or go hungry.” Not only are these legendary acts by the blacks, they are also reflective of a need to speak to the societal realities in the most cutting-edge manner.. For one “Your father is so poor, he can’t afford to pay attention,” a brilliant joining could be, “Your family is so poor, when I asked your mother if I could use the bathroom she said, ‘Sure, pick a corner’”.

Instead of exploring the historicity of this tradition, or of the underground political hip-hop that are emancipatory for a purpose, we have now started off on a wrong foot, with a bunch of narcissistic celebrities that are misappropriating a subculture to falsely portray themselves as victims of sorts. Strictly from the standpoint of a review (considering an important film reviewer was a panelist), what AIB came up with were just gross. One “roast” that met with laughter was that of a person being so black that a white cop got away with killing him. Another one caricatured Santa Claus giving away gifts to wrong kids only when he is Muslim. Nothing to laugh about racist justice system and Islamophobia unless one is actually a victim of those and chooses to make light of the situation. Sadly, the panelists were not. Certainly not enough to cry for their freedom to be politically incorrect.

It is not the politically incorrect that are tortured in a society like India. It is the political correctness that is still looking for outlets, amidst the prevailing platitudes of glorified incorrectnesses.

Whose Freedom?

The core argument of free speech advocates that art must be allowed to exist for the sake of it – and not as a means to a certain social purpose. But is that really a concern, going by the trends? When was art not existing for the sake of it in India? Barring a few socialist filmmakers, when have the huge majority of directors and producers made anything other than art for the sake of art? Most of the blockbusters celebrate themes that sustain on the absolutely irrational, illogical and impossible. Same is true of the prevailing dominant Hindu festivities across the states, regardless of the political party in power. What is politically correct about Durga Puja celebrations in the land of the Party Line? For all its shocking disclosures, what AIB aired was hardly more than a religious rhetoric that knows quite a few things about the free flowing use of “choots” as a liberating phrase. Did they even utter a fraction of “roasting” that is done while pulling the carts of Lord Jagannath in Puri every year at Rath Yatra? Sexist slangs and rape jokes comprise mainstream religious India’s constant preoccupation – a major factor that contributes to success of Bollywood movies and to the prolonged marital success stories of decent majority Hindu households.

Majoritarian supremacist speeches are so taken for granted in everyday life that we often assume them to be struggling for representation when rarely they are even slightly choked – akin to the predicament of an upper caste student who occasionally does not get what is automatically due, because some new movements are demanding reservations in education and employment. To grasp its scope, we may just need to consider the religious cultural givens and the atmosphere permeated by them. For atheists or minorities in religious beliefs, that climate is neither conducive nor desirable. If one were to raise a child as an atheist, where would that option really be? And yet somehow that lack of possibility is not considered as a systematically stifled right to free speech and expression. Only when the religious folks are not allowed to perform a public ceremony that they have historically been doing, is there a major hue and cry about human freedom being throttled.

When was the last time objections were raised because indigenous peoples of the lands were not allowed to address to a global audience to express how the State has been exploiting them? Let alone that, we even do not let someone from among us – Priya Pillai – board a plane. It is not simply the freedom of speech that is at stake – the question that needs to be asked is, whose freedom? The Solzhenitsyns, Rands, and Nabakovs were perhaps politically incorrect, but the freedoms of those they were representing are what must guide the discourse as to which ideology is inherent in artists’ works. Are they the purveyors of an oppressive status quo, or are they the champions of the underrepresented and the despised. Standing up for the freedom of affluent kulaks, greedy individualists and child rapists are not about desirable ways to justify political incorrectness – they are indeed necessary components of feudal and capitalist societies.

Art for the sake of art is not some unfulfilled remote possibility worth a struggle – it is the status quo in our political economy. The demand to prolong it in the name of “free speech”, where freedom is a byproduct of plutocratic enterprises is a needless lamentation. Most artistic endeavors today are rewarded for gearing towards “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”; what is perhaps needed is for the politically correct artists to emerge – the ones who according to Ritwik Ghatak have the nature to “bring forth collective feeling…to seek not only to utter the reality but also to learn the cause of it and the remedy of it.” Like Frida Kahlo and Picasso, Guthrie and Seeger, Zinn and Chomsky. Langston Hughes and Neruda. These politically correct figures rooted in struggles for social justice are the marginalized – without a need for corporations and industries to carry forward their works. Yet they are the organisers themselves who have as Robeson once stated, “taken their sides”.

Artists choose their sides through their works. Whether or not they are suppressed, by whom, and for how long – these are not the real questions. The real questions investigate what sides they have taken. Are they using a platform to end religious intolerance or to promote it? Are they using satire to condemn a misogynistic order or to encourage it? Are they glorifying individual liberty at the cost of social equality, or vice versa, in their quest for free speech? Are they refusing to articulate historical privileges of propertied class, or are they exposing the contradictions with a vision to end that culture, instead of perpetuating it in the name of good humor?

Political correctness did not evolve because artists wanted to submit to the whims of some oppressive ruling class; quite the contrary – it emerged out of a need felt by progressive artists to go beyond individualism. It emerged when the duties of an artist prevailed upon the rights. When the idealists turned realists in the face of the “proletarian culture”, which to Lenin was the “result of a natural development of the stores of knowledge which humanity has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist society, landlord society and bureaucratic society.”

Philosophical premises:

Progressive artists are rightfully disdainful of bourgeois art. Even as Robeson and Picasso were themselves victims of censorship and travel restrictions, they were vocally unsympathetic towards reactionary works. The battle of ideologies is a constant where the ruling art form and historical narratives are representative of the ruling order. That point is lost in these times, when bourgeois art is suddenly celebrated as some sort of beacon for human freedom – where liberty and equality are not seen at odds. Thereafter, at the very least, this marketplace of free speech undermines the effects of hate speech and silencing of the religious, racial and sexual minorities.

The advocates of free speech principles employ “pressure valve” argument in justifying the status quo with the assertion that casteists, religious fanatics and misogynists are just blowing off steam that is harmless. It’s a paternalistic justification that overlooks the fact that hate speech indeed harms the minorities more. For instance, rape jokes are not going to make a victim of sexual violence feel empowered because she still has access to that same pool of free speech rights.

“Same pool” argument is also used to project free speech rights as especially beneficial to the minorities – conveniently forgetting that ruling powers do not employ the same set of rules when it comes to the dissenters. For instance, Maoist sympathizers do not enjoy the same level of freedom as do the sympathizers of corporate monopolies – even if it is erroneously assumed for a moment, that both these groups have similar vested interest in exploiting the natural resources of India.

Finally, the argument that more speech is better for democracy rather than regulated speech is also seriously flawed. It is presupposed at the peril of the oppressed that “talking back” will earn them rewards, while that is rarely the realistic scenario. Nonviolent protesters are routinely lathi-charged and imprisoned by the same system that prides itself on right to free speech and expression of the powerful elites.

The censorship argument just as the artistic expressions themselves needs to be politically correct – the position must spring from the point of raised consciousness where the needs of the times – taking into consideration various locations of exploitations and associated struggles for social justice – are well understood and articulated. For the freedom to be equally distributed, the downtrodden should be able to express dissent, while the rights of privileged need to be moderated. What needs to be a matter of concern is not the occasional inconveniences faced by celebrities for being just their usual selves, but what begs an answer is a probe in the Gandhian terms – whether a civilized society passes a test in the degree of protection it affords its most marginalized.


Sovereignty, Unity and The State Of Denial

The self-appointed champions of secular liberalism are decrying the recent electoral triumph of Hindu nationalism as a subversion of the true will of the people. Saswat Pattanayak argues that ‘we the people’ must not be let off the hook so easily…. (Kindle Magazine)

Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. – Albert Einstein

Contrary to dominant media claims, it is not despite divisive politics that Narendra Modi won the resounding mandate; he instead is it’s natural culmination. For, divisiveness is never the result of political assertions by oppressed socio-cultural minorities against militant nationalistic aspirations; rather, it takes concrete shape through the majoritarian identity politics reveling in patriotic overtures. Divisive is not the politics which ideologically identifies and combats fascist tendencies in one’s assumed country; divisiveness in political climate owes itself to sanctimonious imposition of opportunist conceptions as unquestionable national priorities that override specific needs of the oppressed.

One such conception in recent times involves projection of India as emerging superpower that hosts “world’s oldest civilization” – an enduring and endearing myth that unequivocally demands an end to multicultural pluralism within the country, and harbors a deep suspicion towards the world outside.

BJP’s own election manifestos are constantly updated to reflect the party’s aggressive posturing in as many words. In 2009 edition, the manifesto was less vehement in asserting the myth by stating “Indian civilisation is perhaps the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world. India has a long history and has been recognised by others as a land of great wealth and even greater wisdom.” In 2014, it dropped the word “perhaps” and emphasized on “always” by beginning the manifesto with these words: “India is the most ancient civilization of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom.”

Electoral appeals based on nationalistic outbursts are innately divisive – they require enemies before looking for allies, they condemn diversities before celebrating unity, they overlook special needs before harping on equality rights. In India’s context, they shape nationalism as uniquely Hindu. They also sacrifice dignity in the name of development, undermine humanity in the name of religion, revoke “inner vitality” in the name of civilizational march. Modi’s agenda for “Ek Bharat – Shreshtha Bharat” must also resort to depicting rival parties as “foreigners’ parties”. The seduction of patriotism must encompass rejection of entities who cannot impressively elevate their own jingoism. This year the expectations were so high that despite her foreign origin issue apparently laid to rest, Sonia Gandhi still had to make a televised appearance specifically to reassert her patriotism.

To absolve Congress/UPA of its role in resulting political miseries today would be dishonest. Several of its neoliberal policies have indeed landed India in an economic mess which will require nothing short of a fundamental restructuring – which neither the Congress nor the BJP are prepared or willing to undertake. If the Congress has introduced policies of economic liberalization, it is the BJP which has worked towards its greater implementation – rhetorically, both the parties may indulge in patriotic duels, but in reality, they have never been shy of auctioning off the public lands for private interests. Contrary to popular circulations by the nationalist Right, it is not the “inner vitality” of Indian nation that will be rejuvenated following the new electoral results, but perhaps, quite the contrary.

It is only appropriate to recall in these times the words of Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, who had further theorized Lenin’s use of the term hegemony, while courageously battling the fascists almost a century ago: “The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand. Often the so-called ‘foreigner’s party’ is not really the one which is commonly so termed, but precisely the most nationalistic party – which, in reality, represents not so much the vital forces of its own country, as that country’s subordination and economic enslavement to the hegemonic nation or to certain of their number.” In Gramscian times, “foreigner’s party” was a term used by the nationalist Right to depict the communist parties in Italy. Prior to that, Mazzini’s Action Party used to be vilified similarly since it was influenced by the idea of the French Revolution. In our times, while BJP tends to be nationalistic party, the Congress Party resembling Action Party of the center-left ideology remains the “foreigner’s party” along with the various communist parties.

What Then?
“Hurricane Modi swept through the heartland and beyond…The Modi typhoon that swept away BJP’s rivals in the Hindi heartland…Modi, who mauled powerful regional satraps in states where the caste narrative marginalised national parties, showed that he has the wherewithal to beat them at their own game…The new social umbrella that Modi has forged—‘upper’ castes, OBCs, MBCs and a sizeable section of Dalits— would give the BJP a lethal support base in any electoral combat. “Modi’s ‘backward caste’ image will not put off the ‘upper caste’ voter. The Modi brand has something for everyone.” (Open Magazine, 16 May, 2014)

It is said that during the period of National Emergency when journalists were asked to bend, they crawled. Under Modi, it appears as though we are doing as much, even without being asked. As if the uncritical adulation and the unabashed defense of a communal politician is not shocking enough, there are terms like “Hinduphobia” floating around these days to portray the new ruling class as a potential victim of an imaginary witch-hunt. One commentator in Huffington Post alludes to “civilizational Hindu point of view” in his depiction of a fictitious battle between India and Hinduphobia – and he surmises that India has voted in favor of India (much as a journalist should, while acting as a “stenographer for the government” to quote I.F. Stone).

For, “India has won” was also the tweet by Modi himself to describe the results. And Modi could be right. This is the India we knew always existed amidst us and thrived over the decades. This India was socio-culturally undeniable a construct, despite occasional rise to influence by a few reformers and revolutionaries who challenged it from time to time. Religious beliefs, superstitions, casteism, nepotism, misogyny, greed, and bullying as core features of this India always preceded our keenness to pursue ideological understanding of political economy.

Gleeful celebrations of Modi over the past few months have merely brought it all to a full circle as it so happens that this robust, vibrant, shining India has now also found a complimenting political outlet. For those of us who desired for a different tally, it is not the victory of Narendra Modi. It is the victory of an India we have always cheered for, consciously or subconsciously; an India viciously right-wing in socio-cultural and, now, political character.

It is important to make distinctions between the socio-cultural and the political in understanding how a secular idea called India has ended up in the hands of the communal voters masquerading as Indians. How does a country that had its Prime Ministers celebrate norms of secularism by invariably recalling Mahatma Gandhi in their first address to the nation end up with Modi, who reminds the nation of the centenary celebrations of rightwing Hindu ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya instead? How does a country prepare itself to be headed by an active member of the RSS – an organization banned thrice on the charges of being communal, then celebrate such an occasion with tearful joys? How do many of the country’s prominent intellectuals and cultural icons express jubilation at the victory of a political party that possibly has its origins through hate-mongering, and prosperity through orchestrated genocides?

Maybe because the trends were always showing culturally, although somewhat limited (or, disallowed) politically. Perhaps the private lives of Indian citizens were not in consonance with the state policies outlined in the constitution. As a reflection of clear dismissal of secular ethos, the National Executive member of BJP Sheshadri Chari recently remarked following his party’s victory: “The jury is out. The constitution does not defend the word secularism and it was added into the Preamble in 1975.” It is almost as though we privately abide by secularism only because it has juridical weight. To quote Gramsci who had proposed two superstructural levels: “the one that can be called ‘civil society’, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’, and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of ‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout the society and on the other hand to that of ‘direct domination’ or command exercise through the State and ‘juridical government.’”

Hypothetically speaking, if secularism were to be removed today from the Preamble, how would the private lives be for us Indians? We the people who have historically practiced untouchability as part of our Hindu “way of life”, and still very much do (even BJP in its latest manifesto is “committed to the eradication of untouchability at all levels”). We the people who gleefully demolish shrines and persecute minorities and overwhelmingly participate in communal riots. We the people who authorize the State in sending Kashmiri freedom fighters to gallows – from Maqbool Bhat to Afzal Guru, brushing aside legitimate concerns over prejudiced trials. From slapping sedition charges against students for cheering Pakistani cricket team to imprisoning professors and social workers on grounds of being Maoist sympathizers – considering innumerable such injustices have taken place regardless of who was at the helm of power, can we the people truly become secular, even if we tried?

As Dr. Ambedkar wrote once, “This country has seen the conflict between ecclesiastical law and secular law long before Europeans sought to challenge the authority of the Pope. Kautilya’s Arthshastra lays down the foundation of secular law. In India unfortunately ecclesiastical law triumphed over secular law. In my opinion this was the one of the greatest disasters in the country. The unprogressive nature of the Hindu society was due to the notion that the law cannot be changed.”

Since Hindu society has always remained the dominant group in India, Ambedkar was not averse to discarding the entire identification with Hinduism. He conceptualized an India where there would be no scope for “Hindu nationalists”, no possibility for anyone like Modi to proudly claim as he did in his interview to Reuters last year: “I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu.” Dr. Ambedkar had foreseen such an advent, which is precisely why he had warned the country in the following words, “Personally myself I say openly that I do not believe that there is any place in this country for any particular culture, whether it is Hindu culture, or a Muhammadan culture, or a Kanarese culture or a Gujarati culture. There are things we cannot deny, but they are not to be cultivated as advantages, they are to be treated as disadvantages as something which divides our loyalty and takes away from us our common goal. That common goal is the building up of a feeling that we are all Indians. I do not like what some people say, that we are Indians first and Hindus afterwards or Muslims afterwards. I am not satisfied with that, I frankly say that I am not satisfied with that. I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indian first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.”

Nothing else but Indians has been predictably compromised during BJP’s campaigns in various states this season. Amit Shah’s call for “revenge for the insult” in Uttar Pradesh should have resulted in a boycott of the BJP in the state, and yet it landed up with overwhelmingly majority seats. What became worse was how in a unique backlash against minority assertions, Islamic leaders were compared with Hindu supremacists by media and election commission alike. Once the minorities were brought to the level of the Hindu majority in receiving the equal flak, it was just a matter of competitive loyalty then on, in which the majority, quite naturally, had a comfortable victory.

Oppressed minorities in any society are not equal to the oppressive majority. This is a simple proposition which often gets lost amidst modern criticisms of secularism. Whereas it is perfectly alright for various minority groups to organize themselves for cultural promotion, linguistic preservation or even political self-defense to a certain degree, it is absolutely unacceptable for members of the dominant group of a given society to organize themselves accordingly. Whereas what results from minority organizations is a celebration/possibility of diversity and pluralism, what results from majority organizations is blatant display of fascist politics. In other words, whereas it is not hate speech to claim that Muslims have sacrificed themselves in wars against Pakistan, it is clearly hate speech to assume that Muslims are unpatriotic Indians; because in the former instance, minorities speak in their defense in order to doubly attempt to prove their loyalty to the nation, whereas the latter instance would be one where even an irresponsible remark by a member of the majority can further isolate and jeopardize the interests of minorities.

Indian nationalism of Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru therefore fundamentally differs from the Hindu nationalism. Rajnath Singh rightly said recently that the dream of Deendayal Upadhyaya was pursued by Advani and Vajpayee, and finally has been fulfilled by Modi. He is right because Indian nationalism has resoundingly departed from Gandhi’s path, and has been replaced by Hindu nationalism – a philosophy that had once succeeded in assassinating Gandhi.

Even as the focus has been identified, the fight for social justice must go beyond Modi government and one’s imaginations for political possibilities must not be surrendered only within the confines of democratic elections. For, this replacement of values did not take place overnight. It did not start with Narendra Modi. It began with the regular Hindu families – of yours, and of mine. It started over the dining table discussions over the evils of reservations. It started with great expectations from our meritorious children to leave others behind in the race for excellence. It started with our charitable cooperation towards the status quo, where giving alms to the beggars took precedence over translating empowering literatures. It started with our collective jubilation at defeating neighboring nations in sports, in distributing ladoos at hanging of “terrorists”, and in remaining ever prepared to lay down our lives in the name of territorial sanctities. It started with our pious denunciation of meat-eaters and needless reverence towards vegetarians – privileged enough to be selective about their diets. Narendra Modi merely provided for a punching bag. For us Indian liberals so committed to thwart Modi’s designs, the real battle must take place inside our own homes, around the textbooks our children unquestionably consume, with our family values that continue to be shaped by Brahminical scriptures, calendars and wisdom. And just because some caste folks eat meat or vote against BJP or unfriend bigots on social media, it has no bearing upon the amount of sustained efforts required to challenge the Hindu supremacist system that has been glorified in India, since well before any modern political party came into existence. Dictatorial Modi may be running a vicious one-man show for BJP. But the well-meaning liberals in India have been running the Hindutva show for several generations now.

BJP’s stellar performance is not the contribution of a failed Rahul Gandhi. It is a mandate by the country ever so in denial of its supremacist potentials. Even in the mammoth defeat of the liberals, we scrounge for figures that would suggest that BJP has received merely one-third vote share. Apparently, that provides us the solace. Before Modi came to power, we continued to reject any Modi-wave whatsoever. And even after he bosses over the parliament, the educated liberal Hindu folks are looking for convenient numbers to absolve ourselves off our responsibilities, if not complicity. Intellectuals not only are able to articulate the direction a country takes, they also lend credence to that. Gramsci said as much about their roles in furthering the prestige of the dominant group in any society, until the group emerges too dangerous to be tackled anymore – “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise: 1) The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. 2) The apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed.”

The spontaneous consent to BJP is in fact caused by India’s historical propensity for Hindu dominance. Until now, barring intermittent sessions, Hindu nationalism was part of the civil society (the private) in India, but now they are dominating the political society (the State) with unprecedented success. Reversal in sight through electoral reconfigurations is merely hogwash, since it changes very little. Let’s take Odisha as an instance, where there has been no Modi wave, and yet Christians are routinely harassed and the Hindu way of life prevents Dalits, Muslims and foreigners from sharing Lord Jagannath’s blessings in the same way the caste Hindus do. “Modi wave” may only legitimize the coercive power of state apparatus, but the privileges of the dominant group that gave rise to Modi, has remained a constant due to our refusal to take a stand on religious absurdities. What Gopalkrishna Gandhi recently hoped for in his open letter to Narendra Modi reinforces once again the hegemonist notion that it is indeed possible for someone “to be Savarkar in the heart and yet Ambedkar in the mind”. The truth is there is no reconciliation among the two. There is no reconciliation between Savarkar’s Hindu and Ambedkar’s India – they stand diametrically opposed. India can never be a Hindu nation and a Hindu nation can never be India.

What Now?

Contradictions abound in the new political landscape. Like Savarkar’s divisive Hindutva excluded other religions, so does Modi’s prescriptions of Hinduism as the way of life for Indians. To reemphasize, Modi did not win the mandate because he opposed divisive politics, but because he profited from it. Not because he spoke against identity politics but because it is the victory of the identity politics – that of the Hindu identity. That of a Hindu nation. A supremacist majoritarian identity has merely triumphed over the stifled oppressed identities. It is not the unity of Indians across caste/religion lines that gave rise to Modi. It is the disunity of people who are divided along various social divisions – thanks to the all pervading Hindu ethos – to distrust each other, rather than to unite as a politically empowered working class to thwart domestic and global capitalists, which has empowered the fascists. BJP is a political vulture (with due apologies to the bird) that aimed to gain the most from a divided working class. And it has amply succeeded, thanks to the virulently anticommunist Indian society.

At the cost of incurring the wrath of the politically correct who must treat the act of voting as sacrosanct, we should be able to denounce a backward society that thrives off feudal values, a nation whose literacy quest remains abysmally apolitical, a country whose ruling class remains emphatically anti-intellectual, a people that remain conflicted based on fictitious religious romanticisms rather than expressing solidarities to foster class interests among the oppressed. If religion is the opium of the masses, the communal politicians remain the drug dealers. In allowing for them to legally operate as cultural peddlers and in ennobling them to take the political centerstage, it is we the people who must bear responsibility and solemnly resolve once again – this time to reconstitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.

Our resolve must be strong enough to prevent encounters of Ishrat Jahans, jail terms for Binayak Sens, sedition charges against Arundhati Roys; our resolve must become strong enough to prevent arrests of G.N. Saibabas, Hem Mishras, Prashant Rahis; our resolve must emerge strong enough to let no politician call Kerala a nursery for terrorism, or to demand Hindu ancestry of religious minorities. Finally, our resolve must be relentless in not forgetting amidst all electoral festivities, that elections are not about personalities or parties – they are about ideas. Idea of India as a sovereign democratic republic needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country surrenders to imperialistic designs – threats from foreign powers or through its own military – or chooses to remain sovereign and therefore respects struggles for sovereignty by lands oppressed by it. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether it allows capitalistic expansions by private capital, regardless of whether it is global or domestic, or it chooses to pursue socialist economy. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country remains at the disposal of Hindu supremacists or it celebrates secularism by allowing for sufficient reflections and correctional measures to check the growth of majoritarian militancy.

And if we fail at our renewed resolve in safeguarding even the Constitution we once dedicated to ourselves, now that we discover the political crossroads – contrary to what the champions of resurgent nationalism claim, India might even have won, but Indians would eventually lose.

The Politics We Deserve

By Saswat Pattanayak


“Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.  (Naomi Klein)

Fear-based politics reaches disproportionate heights when coupled with nationalistic frenzies. As a first sign of fascism, it assumes a normalized state, masquerading as an agency to dispel fear itself. To rejuvenate the political climate with a fresh lease by resorting to masculine rhetorics becomes its core strategy. It predictably attacks the progressives as conspiratorial and traitors, while it paints the secularists as impotent and pseudo. Fear-based politics mocks constitutional frameworks, not out of concern, but from disdain. It revises historical narratives not out of an interest to engage scholastically, but because anti-intellectualism becomes its mainstay. It obsesses with geographical, cultural and religious borders. It is constantly wary of those outside as enemies, unless they acquiesce; it thrives in a climate of hatred towards those it treats as fringe elements, within its territory. Fear-based politics aims at reawakening the traditionally privileged, lest their inherited spoils are subjected to redistribution. It resorts to reaffirming the sacred, upholding the holy, instituting moralisms and reimposing strictures, often borrowed from the ancient texts to undermine the modern reforms.

Fear-based politics reinforces the reactionary aspects of a cultural status-quo, while opposing the liberal strides of a political one. It confuses social majoritarianism with democratic mandate, while employing religious discourses as an invigorating weapon. It assumes equality of all as a preexisting condition, regardless of unique histories of oppressions and privileges. It celebrates military conquests with glee, abhors the idea of lagging behind, and limits the imaginings to supersede as an authority. In short, fear-based politics celebrates the survival of the fittest in the political arena, where the leader is seen as vigorous and brawny, reveling in pride for unquestioned heritages. The desperation to lead a country’s journey into emerging as a superpower is predicated upon the unceasing fear of losing whatever remains left of an imperious status.

If histories of fascism and nazism are any indication, such desperations on part of the politicians are merely natural corollary of a suitable political climate. People deserve the kind of leaders they elect, select, or tolerate. Although it is far more tempting to paint a specific prime-ministerial aspirant as the apostle of fear-based politics at this juncture, it would be more prudent – and sincere – to hold responsible, the political culture itself – reared by the Indian citizens thus far, as the country goes to polls in a couple of months from now, in what is being hailed as a potential “turning point”.

The reality that a far-right politician is indeed legitimized as a candidate to the top political post in the country is immensely telling, whether or not, he ends up winning it. What is only more disturbing is the sheer predictability of this reality – it is almost as though we were bracing the country for this day. Our social conditioning has manifested in our misplaced patriotic duties to refuse authority to a woman not on grounds of political differences, but solely because she is a “foreigner”, despite having been more of an Indian than the countless NRIs whose funds we voluntarily have solicited to fuel hatred in the subcontinent. Our collective derision of a prime minister not because he is the architect of a neoliberal agenda, but because he was not macho enough to outgrow his “silence” that appears to us as jocular. Our unquenched thirst for the blood of imagined enemies – ranging from the Maoists to the Muslims, grounded on unfounded claims of sovereignty losses, from within the borders, and from outside. Our unabated eagerness to claim and reclaim golden ages of a monolithic culture that suits our propensity for consumption of selective glories, harking us back to celebrate a certain five-thousand years old civilization.

Such a predictable crossroads where the opinion polls suggest a significant support for a party that draws its convictions from xenophobia and isolationism has arrived not because of a single politician who once spearheaded attacks on members of a vulnerable minority group. We are confronted by it today because as a nation, we have ducked the difficult questions posed before us by historical opportunities, time and again. We have consistently refused to address the special plights of the people inhabiting occupied territories and have evaded any referendum even as we have reinforced military might without pause. We have reached this unfortunate stage where resurgence of Hindu nationalism is treated with admiration because we have unfailingly nurtured the sanctities around inherently regressive tendencies of Hinduism, a religion that must relegate a section of its followers to the abyss in order to herald another section as its panacea, and we have offered it a clean chit as a ‘way of life’ instead. In endorsing this way of life, we have flatly rejected any attempt to equate casteism with racism. Not only that, in endorsing the Hindutva philosophy that governs our everyday lives, we keep rejoicing patriarchal mores, so much so that our images abroad are the images of the assaulted and raped. And yet, instead of reflecting over how our subjugations of women and the minorities are sanctioned by the very texts we hold fundamental, and instead of finding our cultural nationalism at odds with constitutional prescriptions, we have reached a stage where rabid jingoism is the preferred flavor for most pre-poll respondents, because we have as families have continued to raise our children against the spirits of the constitution, and through installing in them values of distrusts, superstitions, ruinous competitions and superiority complexes.

It must not surprise us that we have reached this crossroads where we have to choose between the secular and the communal. It should however alarm us like never before. It should alarm us because we have even begun to dismiss the relevance of secularism. By attacking it as “pseudo” and “appeasing” and simply unworkable, we are thumping our chests to decry what we have started mocking as “sick-ularism”. Just as we have done with our opposition to “reservations”. Instead of recognizing the dividends and therefore expanding them, we are choosing to dispense with the progressive policies. We don’t just stop there – our attacks on the drafters of our constitution and makers of the nation are not so much to learn from their struggles to resolve the crisis – some of which still are pending for us to do justice to them ourselves – but to revise our history books to undermine the various streams of anticolonial movements that gave birth to a fairly new republic of India for whom inevitable challenges were to far outpace prospective accomplishments.

Despite critical issues abound which we must tackle sustainably, systematically – informed by needs for social justice, we treat national elections as sensational phases to posit individuals against one another, in a farcical, albeit, spectator sport. In the most recent such attempts, we witnessed Arnab Goswami trying to outsmart Rahul Gandhi, and as the various analysis from leading commentators affirmed, he clearly outsmarted Gandhi. Some wrote that Gandhi was not prepared for the barrage of “specific” questions, and some said he just could not have answered anyway. From crude jokes to outright waves of sympathy were expressed for the ways Gandhi had to endure Goswami. And most of them were correct observations. Indeed, Goswami’s voice has started representing not just the content, but also the manners in which public discourses are taking place in India – the very reason why we are at this crossroads, to begin with.

Goswami’s overzealous attempts to elicit a duel between personalities (in this cas
e, a “RaGa vs NaMo” match) perfectly synchronized with how we tend to treat elections. His demand for a PM candidate ahead of the polls so that he can then hold the individual responsible for the social diseases, is exactly how we are always on the run for our favorite scapegoat. His obfuscation surrounding origins critical to understanding 1984 and 2002 in context is exactly how we rationalize the rise of Hindu nationalism under various garbs. Finally his “challenging” Rahul Gandhi for “a direct one on one battle with Narendra Modi” is just reflective of the yardstick which many of us measure the national politics by. Some have argued that this interview – Rahul Gandhi’s first – was going to be disastrous for his political career; that it amply demonstrated how incapable he was in handling the tough questions, and therefore it proved him feeble in leading the country.

And yet, the reality may just be the opposite. In more ways than can be described here, the interview indeed proved that India has finally found a political leader who is immensely capable of discerning questions, identifying issues, and persisting with the necessary. When Arnab’s unrelenting question was, “Are you afraid of losing to Modi”, Rahul’s response to that was only appropriate: “What millions of youngsters in this country want is to empower and unleash the power of the women in this country.” This is as direct an answer as could have been provided to a question about Modi’s growth in Indian society. Missing the connection is precisely the point. An empowered citizenry does not opt for fascist politics. Only a fear-based political climate gives rise to despots. Hailing from a political family that has directly been targeted by fundamentalist forces, Rahul Gandhi is only acutely aware of it. The good part being, he acknowledges the same. Instead of resorting to any meritocratic claims of individualistic journeys, he recognizes the privileges, responsibilities, and the perils – of having been born in a family that has remained at the helm of Indian politics for decades.

While BJP and its ideological apparatus offers misogyny as a response to women’s rights, Rahul Gandhi keeps returning to the issue of women’s empowerment as crucial to national development. From media portrayals to dining table discourses, the space we provide to issues of gender inequality has always been dismal, and it will not be an exaggeration to state, as Rahul Gandhi has cited on a separate occasion quoting a NGO activist, that no nation will prosper which oppresses its women. And despite his insistence on deliberating over women’s issues in India, the manner in which Arnab Goswami continued to reject that as a non-issue in the only interview he had with Rahul Gandhi, is exactly the reason why we as a country need to reflect upon which questions are indeed tough, and which ones are just plain wrong.

Not all questions are relevant, just as not all changes are desirable. Often times, our temptations, and not our studied observations, clamor for a change. And more often, the changes we seek are not systemic ones, instead we merely look for a facelift. The questions before India are not just about who will lead the country, but much more importantly, which issues will govern it. What Rahul Gandhi has proposed is that constitutionally the MPs choose the PM candidate and so who will lead the country will be answered after the polls, not before. But even if it is decided that we must reject one between Gandhi and Modi, the choice is clear: only one of them is decidedly professing a majoritarian religious sentiment in a country founded upon secular values. There is no dispute here. What are at stakes, however are the core issues that will govern this country at such a defining intersection.

Macho sloganeering of “India First” is directly benefitting the popularity of right-wing nationalism in the country today. It is an embarrassing development for a nation that urgently needs to check its own powers, not expand those any further. “India First” is also reminiscent of the dark days of Pokharan test – a filthy display of militarist pride borne out of disregard towards humane priorities. It is important to remember that India was never designed to be a first. India’s emancipation lies in its setting an example for the world, in being an equal partner in progress for the Third World, which still suffers from excesses of capitalism and neocolonial projects. India’s future lies in acknowledging its own transgressions, ending the war on its own people, confirming with international standards set in dealing with occupied territories. India’s future lies in empowering the Dalits, the women, the working poor, in preparing for a nation that respects the spirits of its constitution and the fundamental duties it prescribes, among which feature the development of “the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Economic development – no matter what the model is called – cannot be a substitute for social democracy that embraces values of humanism and inclusiveness. In 2010, Sonia Gandhi aptly described what it implies, “Social democracy is not populism, it is not generosity; it is the justice that our constitution promises. The backlog is huge, but without social democracy, Indian democracy could well be undermined.” Taking a leaf off Indira Gandhi’s own visions, she cited the four features of a social democracy that India must strive towards: first, a belief that social democracy must not only be responsive or responsible, but also be representative of many diversities; second, a conviction that social democracy is unachievable unless economic growth empowers the disadvantaged, deprived and the discriminated against; third, a yearning for social democracy must pay highest attention to the preservation of environment and regeneration of natural resources; and finally, a passion for social democracy must provide for a nation-state as an instrument for change and protection of national sovereignty.

Last year, eminent Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah hailed Sonia Gandhi as one of the greatest foreign-born Indian women to have left a deep imprint on our history, he was not stretching the truth. He articulated at least four legal measures, in which Sonia Gandhi had “changed the course of the Indian welfare state” and enabled Indian democracy to become “seriously transformative”: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the Food Security Ordinance (FSO).

Ilaiah argued that the UPA government had empowered the villagers to get their wages without being subjected to any humiliations via contractual engagements with feudal lords. For the first time in memory, villagers are telling stories about their increased food intake. On matters of transparency, RTI was a radical step towards the right direction and required a level of courage on part of a political party, that was not commonplace. Right to Education Act put in place by the UPA has also been revolutionary and has given hope to parents who could not have otherwise afforded education for their children. Most importantly, Right to Food Ordinance is a direct attack on casteist superstructure of India, apart from being an exemplary contribution to alleviate poverty.

Going by Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, the four measures above apply to the poorest in India, but at the same time, they may not be impacting the lives of the middle class or the rich, which explains partly why the corporate media refuses to engage in conversations on these issues. A “Shining India” slogan invariably overlooks issues concerning food, clothing, shelter, literacy and rural employment, because, it can afford to take these for granted. But even more critically, the deliberate oversight owes itself to the ongoing class war in India – the war waged by the rich upon the poor, which subsequently helps in agenda-setting for the media.

As a result, the central elect
oral issues end up becoming the ones that concern the upwardly mobile. One question often posed to Rahul Gandhi in this regard is, “How can India be a superpower if we continue to depend on the United States?” His answer has been unequivocal: “It is not so much that we depend on another country. We don’t need favors from others. But there is a certain amount of integration, and it has massive advantages. If we built an inward-looking IT industry, and we don’t allow it to go beyond Indian borders, that will be very limited. Our strength is we are young and highly educated. We are not saying we should depend on another country, in fact, what we are saying is others should depend on us. It’s a different way of looking at the world.” Thereafter in a classic instance of misunderstanding this “different way of looking”, the convener concluded with glee that, Rahul Gandhi had said other countries should depend on us. And Rahul had to immediately clarify that it is not what he had meant at all: “It is not that the other countries should depend on us. The world is integrated. We have offices in Bangalore and Hyderabad contributing to the world economy. Once you believe in yourself and can compete with anyone, it’s not about whether we are depending on others, it is about their views on us.”

Rahul Gandhi’s assertions of a changing India that will be a key participant in world economy, and not a haven for domestic capitalism, is one that needs to be understood with the “different mindset” he keeps harping on. He draws from the Nehruvian legacies of peaceful co-existence, not Reaganesque argument of one-upmanship. His view has been that “We should not be in the business of making decisions based on fear. We have to think about not how we will be affected by the problems but how we shall affect the problems. Instead of having a mindset where we fear that we might get pushed around by someone, we should recognize that we have a place in the world and we should occupy that place in the world.  If we don’t have this attitude, rest of the world will not respect us.”

Respect, not fear, is what Gandhi’s central thesis has been. His party has been infested with corrupt politicians and yet he has earned praises from Anna Hazare for his anti-corruption crusades in getting the Lokpal Bill passed. If corruption has been a core electoral issue, Rahul Gandhi has rightfully taken credits for his activisms involving Right to Information, Aadhaar and NREGA as transformative anti-corruption projects. He is not ashamed of the socialistic aspects of Indian economy, despite being at odds with Dr. Manmohan Singh himself. Calling them as unmatched transfers of power, he applauds his party for its efforts at ensuring “bank nationalization, telecom revolution, rights paradigm, fight against the British – everything for power to the people. Answer to every single problem is to push this democratization further, to make it reach the heart of this country.”

One of the ways democratization takes place is through political machinery, by restoring the faith in the legislature, so that the MLAs and the MPs do what their business is: to make laws. Addressing the elected representatives recently, Gandhi said, “This is not just another turn or another election – this is a turning point. No one is in a mood to accept less than full or to compromise; they want individual choice, participation, fair deal – and frankly, they deserve it. Either we wake up to their aspiration, or we have no business to claim that we represent them. While the work you do in the ground is very important, today laws are being made by the media, by judges, on the streets of this country, and the people elected to make laws are being sidelined. We have to get you – our MLAs, MPs and Pradhans – back.”

In a time when politics is a dirty word and politicians are most distrusted in the society, so much so that Arvind Kejriwal won the elections with his “anti-politician” rhetoric, what Rahul Gandhi is saying is refreshingly different: “Real change is structural, and for that we need to work continuously through legislation, reform and sustained political efforts…Imperative before us is not whether to change, but when and how to change. What does this mean for us as a political party? Responding to an immense demand to change…But we can’t complain without articulating clearly what is going to be done about it, we can’t oversimplify non-solutions, we can’t subvert democratic institutions by blocking parliamentary sessions; we cannot turn people against one another, or spread communal hatred or propose that structures be handed over to one man or they be viciously destroyed.”

Rahul Gandhi has democratized the Youth Congress and NSUI and succeeded in multiplying the numbers of new members, but more laudable is the way Congress Manifesto itself is now demanding mass participations in its revisions. As a first step in the country, Congress also intends to introduce direct candidate selection process in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies. As an electoral promise that certainly sounds tall, but truly emancipatory, Rahul Gandhi has assured that 50% of Congress Chief Ministers shall be women, in addition to his support for the reservation for women in Parliament. Gandhi’s stress on reservations is based on his assertion that there is not one India, but two. The India that is left behind in the race needs to catch up with the India which has surged ahead rapidly. For this to happen, the means need to be peaceful, democratic and constitutional. While, he contends, the opposition parties are headed exactly in the opposite directions.

Time will tell if Rahul Gandhi lives upto the different attitude and mindset he is espousing. But suffice it to say, contrary to mainstream media contention, his words and actions as a political leader, have been reassuring and inspiring so far, enabling imaginations, while thankfully remaining devoid of fear tactics and warmongering. Most of all, he has a principled composure difficult to maintain at a time when nationalistic rhetorics have started reverberating, almost to the point of stifling out voices of reason. He reminds us of what patriotism truly entails, howsoever unpopular it may sound at the moment:  “We do not love our country because it is powerful or because it is rich. We love our country because it upholds the ideals we wish to live by, we love it because it stands on the ideals of humanity, inclusion, and no matter how much our shortcomings might frustrate us, and they do; we love this country because it always taught us to love one another, how to remain united in the face of adversity and to never ever give up, no matter how hard or difficult the struggle is, or how dark the night. India teaches us to fight on, with compassion in heart and faith in future.”

No one knows who shall lead India this year, and how much of reflections we as a nation may have to undergo post this election, but hopefully it will be someone who truly believes in compassion in heart and faith in the future. Because, in the current climate of desperation and vacuum, politics needs to be filled with hope, not fear.

(Published in Kindle Magazine, March 2014)

Matter & Consciousness: Revisiting Lokayata

By Saswat Pattanayak 

“Thought and consciousness are products of the human brain and the human being is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brains, being in the last analysis products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.”

– Engels

Various schools of thoughts within philosophy, psychology, linguistics and anthropology have attempted to analyze matter and consciousness through dualism and monism.

Spinoza had considered mind and matter, or everything spiritual/intellectual and everything material, as aspects of the same basic Substance. But like Hegel’s idealism, his monism attributed this substance to a God as the totality of all things. Error to him was not external to truth: “The truth is its own measure and the measure of what is false.”

Hegel likewise separated consciousness (sense-certainty, perception, and understanding) from self-consciousness (struggle for freedom), reason (observation, actualization and rationality) and finally the idealistic aspect of spirit (ethics, culture, morality, religion, art, death and absolute knowledge).

Berkeley’s idealism was equally absolute. Turning Locke’s empiricist philosophy into metaphysical, he argued that one could not separate the primary and secondary distinctions, i.e., it was not possible to distinguish the primary shape of an object without its secondary color. Drawing upon Locke’s illogicalities, Berkeley reached the conclusion that all our experiences were mental ones caused by God and that our every experience was a gigantic illusion, as formulated in his famous maxim: esse est percipi; to be is to be perceived.

One step further was the sophisticated idealist, Kant, who replied to Hume’s assertion about gradual building up of conceptual apparatus from human experiences, with an argument that unless human beings have some kind of mental conceptual apparatus to begin with, no experience would be possible: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

As against the backdrop of such eternal idealistic truths, Marxism developed a scientific, dialectally materialistic outlook, whereby the interplay between environment and consciousness found adequate attention with an aim to overthrow the hitherto existing philosophical fixations. The premise of dialectical materialism in Marxist sense claimed that it is not the consciousness that determines existence, but on the other hand, the existence that determines the consciousness. The matter, above all. But it did not just stop there. What set Marx apart from all the materialists before him was his understanding of consciousness as a sensuous activity, a function of the brain and the nervous system, raising the relationship between matter and consciousness to the level of dialectical materialism.

Marx displayed great disdain towards philosophers and intense optimism towards philosophy. Unlike the materialists preceding him, he treated philosophy as the practical, revolutionary knowledge which needed to be acted upon, in order to change the world, and in the process, salvage itself. Certainly, he denounced the idealists, the Utopian socialists and those that would resemble the abounding postmodernists. But that was only the given. What made Marx a radical was his constant critique of the materialists themselves. The spontaneous atheists of the ancient era (Fan Wanzu, Shen Xu, Heraclitus, Democritus), the metaphysical materialists of the modern times (John Locke, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Feuerbach), and the democratic revolutionaries of subsequent periods (Chernyshevsky, Markovic, Khristo Botev) provided to him insufficient, if not reactionary, grounds for applicability of philosophy as an emancipatory medium.

Materialists throughout the history accurately identified humans as products of circumstances. But it took Marx to declare that it is the people themselves who must change circumstances. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice,” Marx theorized.

The aim of the present study is to locate Marxism’s possible roots (spontaneous, or not) within the ancient Indian materialism: the Lokayata, which also remains as the very first exposition of empirical materialism in the history of philosophy.

Lokayatikas considered the soul to be nothing but body with the attribute of consciousness. While seeing the soul in the body itself, they argued that there is nothing called soul apart from the body. According to them, consciousness emerges when transformed into the form of the body. That, the human being is nothing but a body qualified by consciousness. There is thus, according to them, no soul separate from the body capable of going to heaven or of obtaining liberation, because of the presence of which in the body, the body is supposed to acquire consciousness. On the contrary, the body itself is conscious; it is the soul.

Lokayata did not deny the consciousness so much as it complicated it. Instead of acceding to an assumption that consciousness could be a peculiarity of the spirit, it depicted consciousness as an attribute of the body. This occurred, according to them, because whereas the material elements comprise the living body, consciousness is produced in it. This was augmented by the Lokayata stipulations, according to Sankara: a) Wherever there is body, there is also consciousness (anvaya), and b) wherever there is the absence of body, there is also the absence of consciousness (vyatireka).

What Lokayata did in an unprecedented manner was to explain the origin of consciousness from the matter itself. In other words, to explain unconscious from the conscious. According to Sankara, consciousness to the Lokayatikas was like the intoxicating power of the alcoholic drink which was produced from certain ingredients, none of which has the intoxicating power. Sankara explains, “(According to the materialists) anything whose existence depends on the existence of another, and which ceases to be when that other thing is not there, is ascertained to be an attribute of the latter, as, for instance, heat and light are attributes of fire. As regards such attributes as the activities of the viral force, sentience, memory, etc., which are held to belong to the soul, they too are perceived within the body and not outside; and hence so long as any substance other than the body cannot be proved, they must be the attributes of the body itself. Hence the soul is not distinct from the body” (Gambhirananda). Like Sankara, another critic of Lokayata was Jaina philosopher Haribhadra who alluding to the above wrote that for Charvakas, the folly was then to renounce what is actually observed – the pleasures of the world – in favor of what is never observed – heavenly pleasure.

D. Chattopadhyaya argues that Lokayata took a fully naturalistic view of fermentation and distillation and discarded the ‘spiritual’ view of it, which even the 17th-century European science was to outgrow. “In the Lokayata view, there is nothing mysterious about the origin of the intoxicating power…Only the material elements are real and everything in the world is caused by them.” Such a radical position was unique to only the Lokayata. As S. G. Sardesai points out, “Even among the materialists the Lokayata was the only exception to the rule. All the rest, while persistently rejecting the conception of a creator, of anything existing prior to matter in one or another form, kept company with religious beliefs, rites and even cults in daily life.” Although, to their credits, Charaka and Sushruta had adopted the same views as Lokayata, regarding consciousness being a product of the el
ements, while rejecting the idealist positions as untenable.

K. Damadoran writes that the Charvakas denied the independent existence of an immaterial soul. When the body perishes, consciousness also perishes, because consciousness is only a function of the body. So the doctrine of transmigration also is false: “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world. Neither in experience nor in history do we find any interposition of supernatural forces. Matter is the only reality and the mind is matter thinking. The hypothesis of a creator is useless for explaining or understanding the world.”

The rationalism and necessary atheism in Lokayata was the logical consequence of their consistently materialistic outlook. As a result, they were vigorously attacked by numerous idealists, most prominently by scholars of the Vedanta school (such as Madhavacharya), so much so that most literatures available about them are mere criticisms that have expounded on their positions. Whereas the idealists considered attainment of moksha to be the aim of life, the materialist (Lokayata) philosophers do not entertain a possibility for freedom from feelings, sorrow or joy. Lokayatikas vehemently criticized the priests and Vedic mantras. For them, Vedas were not only human compositions, but were also meaningless recitals. If the priests argued that the animals sacrificed at yajnas attained heaven, the materialists urged them to instead send their own parents to heaven by sacrificing them. Whereas Vedanta laid a claim to “perfect” knowledge, omniscience, and supernatural intuition (antardrishti), Lokayata Sutras rejected such conceptions because according to them, the very objects of study – nature and human society – were constantly changing and revealing ever new features that did not exist before.

The attempt at idealistically delineating matter as different from consciousness through the employment of Vedic scriptures was considered by the Lokayatikas as “devices of greedy brahmins to earn wealth by cheating the common folk” (Damadoran). The Lokayatikas also pointed out the stupefying effects of religion, which to them was as harmful as opium-intoxication. Prayer was the hope of weak without the will-power, worship was the insincere egoism to save oneself from tortures of hell, and prophets were the greatest liars of any generation (Sastri).

Lokayata’s influence was vastly noted by prominent scholars of various ages, whether they agreed with them or not. If Kautilya mandated that the princes (in “Arthasastra”) study Lokayata along with Samkhya and Yoga systems, Radhakrishnan (in “Indian Philosophy”) acknowledged it duly, “Materialism signifies the declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual and the rejection of the principle of authority. Nothing need be accepted by the individual which does not find its evidence in the movement of reason. The Lokayata philosophy is a fanatical effort made to ride the age of the weight of the past that was oppressing it. The removal of dogmatism which it helped to effect was necessary to make for the great constructive efforts of speculation.”

For a philosophy to become truly relevant, it must encompass all humanity; the most basic needs and deepest aspirations of the majority. Until the world is transformed into a classless society free of exploitation, the political thoughts of Lokayata and dialectal materialism will continue to empower the majority into attempting at progressive revolutions.

(First written for Red Monthly).

Fashion Dialectics


By Saswat Pattanayak

“Fashion determines, in each case, the acceptable limit of empathy.” – Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin belonged to the interwar period that witnessed rise of fascism, actively aided by European intellectuals who were hostile to the masses. The bourgeois was disdainful of the “mass society”, and the ways in which new electronic media were displaying potentials for mass liberations. Its high-brow standards were being threatened by the low-brow tastes of American consumer capitalism. Its exclusive access to the sophisticated art forms was being undermined by the new medium of photography. “Socialist realism” was connecting the masses to what was historically being denied to them in the name of “art”. Writers and intellectuals were becoming the “engineers of the soul” in communist societies that thwarted elitism.
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