Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A Governance of Paranoia

It's not as if the UPA wasn't in enough trouble already – following the Coal allocation block scam and a host of other past debacles haunting it – they clearly got more than what they bargained for when they prodded, albeit indirectly, another hornet's nest: by arresting cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, under the colonial  charges of sedition. Trivedi’s crime: he drew a caricature of the Parliament as a commode, replacing the lions with rabid wolves on the National Emblem. And apparently, that's seditious.

Obviously, his arrest is politically motivated: Trivedi is known to have been associated with India Against Corruption – the NGO headed by erstwhile Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal. And the government clearly has a bone to pick with IAC. 

This is not the first time the Indian political class has displayed an inexplicable and illogical paranoia over a cartoonist’s works. Back in April, WB chief minister, Mamata Banerjee got Jadhavpur University professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra, arrested and beaten up by her party workers for posting “objectionable” material regarding her on a social networking site; he was slapped with absurd charges, which included “outraging the modesty of a woman”. Of course, the UPA and other political parties reacted vehemently against it – as expected. Now that the current administration has found itself in a similar position, it is actually defending its action, albeit riddled with contradictions.

Before I go any further and risk offering a merely symptomatic analysis of the situation, I’d like to make my stance on this issue clear. I do not agree with Trivedi’s “freedom of expression” (i.e. of him drawing what he did), and I do not do so in a Voltaire-esque fashion of “defending his rights while I may disagree with what he has to say”. Neither do I think his cartoons "offend" anything; for it's ridiculous to even assume that. At the same time, I think the whole patriotism/nationalism discourse is balderdash. If anything, the more-than-generous usage of words like "nationalism", "true patriot" and the likes, just goes on to show the arbitrariness of these constructs. 

I may stir a hornet’s nest myself by saying so, but I see a disjuncture in Trivedi’s harsh polemic against the government (something I understand), and in his representation of it. By making these icons the focus of his critique he has, invariably, reduced the meanings of the Asoka Pillar and the Parliament to a single signifier: the present UPA government.

Personally, I found his cartoon rather distasteful. For one, while I understand his attempt to proffer a critique of the current and abysmal state of Indian politics and affairs, I disagree with his target: the Parliament and the Asoka Pillar. These icons, I believe, are institutional symbols and thus, represent something far more than the current political class – who, I believe, are (and one may disagree) not really in a position to invest meanings in these icons; and secondly, because, these icons represent something more important, and if I can use the word, sacred, than present governance and coalition politics, and are as much victims of the current administration’s apathy and corruption (as an example, look at the two Rajya Sabha MPs who got into a fist-fight some days back), as perhaps the common man is – symbolically at least.  

These icons are situated in a historical context and have significantly more meaning that what Trivedi assumed them to have. The Asoka Pillar, for example, has its own rich history, an economy of meanings; while the inscription of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ may not mean much to the government today – I doubt very much if it means much to the people, either – I don’t think the government has ever made a conscious effort to appropriate its meaning or significance; the Parliament, on the other hand, is far more contentious a symbol, making it that much more difficult to analyse. It has been the target of recent anti-corruption movements, yet to many, it represents a legitimate mechanism - as pointless as it may sound.

However, my purpose is to not interpret an iconoclash here; within this discursive framework of (anti) nationalism-sedition, iconoclash, and free speech, I believe there is a more malignant, a more insidious problematic embedded – which has, unfortunately, become central to the culture of politics in India.

I absolutely, and in the strongest words, condemn the government’s violent reaction to this issue; it’s archaic, it’s crass, and politically motivated; most importantly, it is representative of a deeper problem in Indian politics: paranoia. Elsewhere, I have critically commented on what I call the anti-ideology of contemporary Indian politics, of its hypersensitivity indealing with criticisms. One reason, I think, is because politicians have come to represent the entire domain/culture of politics in a way. Following Bishnupriya Ghosh’s work on bio-icons, politicians in contemporary India have become a fragile species; at once, an embodiment of their party ideologies – be it the Thackeray cousins, or the Gandhis, their very image becomes a way for their supporters to rally around, and is also on the crosshairs of dissenting voices; both, within and outside the political realm. Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins, Mamata Banerjee’s austerity or, as we saw recently, Digvijaya Singh’s claim that the anti-migrant Thackeray’s are originally from Bihar, these genealogies, and thus narratives about these bodies as bio-icons, serve as a terrain to contest politics. Very rarely does it turn out that issues of policy and governance are sites for contestation.

That’s precisely why they (politicians) take offense to caricatures regarding political figures. For a healthy democratic system to function (I shall reserve my critiques of democracy for a later time), it is imperative that the rights of freedom of expression, right to participate in a democratic process – and I mean so even non-electorally – are maintained. Sedition is hardly the word to be used against cartoonists and intellectuals, and it reflects the decadence in a legal system, and in attitudes, which refuse to keep up with times. 

With Aseem Trivedi’s arrest, the message that the administration (even though the government has now dropped the sedition charges) is sending out to its people, and indeed the world, is fraught with very serious problems; it is indicative of a political system’s sheer ineptitude in dealing with pertinent issues maturely in via political, legal processes. I tend to agree with Justice Katju when he points out, rather critically and in his usual verbose style, the systemic failure on the part of the governance mechanism, the state, the legal system, the police, as a whole.  And that’s precisely why I think his criticism is highly insightful: it is a critique of the system and not an institutional symbol. Individual institutional symbols like the Parliament or the Asoka Pillar – I restrict my view of it as an entity invested with symbolic/historic meaning, rather than its political inhabitants (an equally true, but one-dimensional perspective) – are located in a system of processes, of a pattern of governance, which has become decadent, apathetic, anti-ideological and corrupt.

Increasingly, this process of governance is being influenced by paranoia, a tendency of knee-jerk reactions, of recourse to archaic notions of morality and anti-nationalism, blurring the lines between India’s democratic present and it’s colonial past. With each such incident, the government is making a fool of itself. Maybe, in the words of the Opposition, the government has lost its moral authority to rule. But in a warped democratic system like ours, you need numbers to rule; "morality" is for cultural policing, to invoke rhetoric, an attempt of the political class to fool the people, and in the process, itself. 

I have traversed across many ideas here, and perhaps, at the cost of argumentative coherence, but I hope you’ve managed to grasp the general themes. We live in confused times, marked by a breakdown of coherent governance. Usually, I tend to be sceptical of the risk of slipping into totalitarianism; our current political class is far too concerned with images - a process which creates regimes of loyalty. Then again, looking at the way life is regimented, with a penetrative authoritarian gaze, and more seriously, it's arbitrariness, it's dilly-dallying and an apparently visible lack of direction (towards achieving totalitarianism; perhaps, I am wrong, looking at the way governments censor the internet, arrest cartoonists), it is precisely this scepticism, and this governance of paranoia, which worries me.


  1. I would keep away from upholding institutional symbols. The Asokan Pillar, for ex. Among its other signifieds are also Asoka's absolutism. In more recent history, impetus to nation-building and nationalism, both culturally imposed procedures. The problem with symbols is that while they cater well to the needs of the innocent, they provide the ruling class with a baton.

    Totalitarianism is the order of the day. I'm daily pissed off at the extent of streamlining that even anti-establishment political activity has in it. As far as the Indian state goes, to expect it to respond "maturely" to dissent is unrealistic. It is basic maturity that it realizes that dissent is not on the agenda of the civil society, and hence it is important to keep things that way, ie., crush all seeds of dissent.

    The change in appearance is nice. I hope your older blog is still alive.

    1. No doubt institutional symbols too cater to the needs of a nation-building agenda; bio-icons like Gandhi, for example, and they way they're appropriated by opposing sides (Trivedi himself invoking a similar rhetoric; and IAC's pseudo-deification of Anna Hazare as a Gandhian, to name a few).

      That's precisely why I agree that symbols can have a surplus of meanings, and become a site for contestation. Perhaps, I was a little careless in formulating my argument, but my contention was that in choosing to represent these two particular icons the way he did, Trivedi reduces the signified to mean just the political class occupying it.

      I think I both agree and disagree with totalitarianism being the order of the day - insofar as totalitarianism refers to a high degree of regimentation, of iron caged-ness, even of the anti-establishment kind, I'd say yes. But our (read: the state's) tendency to move towards regimentation, intolerance for dissenting voices, and what I referred to as a culture of politics, is based on paranoia. And this is a very frightening scenario, because motives are blurred, and are intensely reactionary.

      The reigning confusion is what bothers me, as I still maintain - in the case of India, at least - it's not entirely totalitarianism. Because then, the trajectory in which we're moving would be clear, and an ideology of dissent clearer. Now it's plain confusion; a muddled discourse. Which, to reiterate what I said in the post, is what I find worrisome.

    2. Cartoonists, I guess, would have to constrain connotations of symbols to one meaning. I'm sure if one were to look at R K Laxman over the years, one would get at least a hundred "seditious"/ disestablishmentarianist/subverting cartoons. The difference is that they are cartoonists from different times, and today totalitarianism has entered the fray in deciding what goes and what doesn't.

      Consider any dictatorship: after a while, the original plan is lost sight of, official discourse is a far-cry from actual conditions, dominant discourse offers the most bent forms of dogma. That kind of confusion has been in the modern state even among the so-called liberal societies. As far as some other things go, there is such lack of confusion that the topics aren't even considered worth discussing: the state can do whatever it wants in the name of security, that "terrorists" have no reason but hatred to do what they do, that the market cannot be questioned - absolute agreement on these things.

    3. Firstly, I don't think I'll be very comfortable bracketing Lakshman and Trivedi together; Trivedi's IAC affiliations make me tad wary. Because at the end of the day, it's just another polemic against the government - and reflects very upper-middle civil society, bourgeoisie concerns.

      But I agree what you're saying about cartoonists; and I believe the same goes for artists of any kind. Pussy Riot in Russia, Liu Xiabo, or even the censorship of writers, artistes which is not propagated by the state (let's look closer to home). And this is where I think I would be slightly more wary of the totalitarian discourse; it's far more fissured than that, far more complex; it's in a way become an inherent contradiction in modern states' political agenda (liberal or otherwise, yet different or at least an attenuated form of totalitarianism); and this anxiety is more prevalent in the entire political class - rather than just the one who're now the state. And yes, the lines are incredibly blurred, even to formulate a consistent critique.

      Well, that's about it I suppose. Thanks for commenting and discussing, more so; it's made my argument a bit clearer (or made me clearer about it), if anything else. Hope to read something from your side as well.