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  Opinion   Oped  24 Jan 2018  Three crises in a search of a narrative

Three crises in a search of a narrative

The writer is a member of Compost Heap, a group of academics and activists working on alternative imaginations.
Published : Jan 24, 2018, 1:29 am IST
Updated : Jan 24, 2018, 1:29 am IST

Three crises haunted 2017 and we lack even a discourse, a language for dialogue.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi

A writer looking back on reflections of the year is stunned by the triteness of storytelling. There is almost a standard ritual to annual surveys. One cites an economic index, another makes a bow to governmentality and a third cites charismatic figures, from Chinese President Xi Jinping to US President Donald Trump. If it’s an Indian report, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets a huge slice of the cake. Looking back, one sees the token indicators but there is no sense of event, of debate, of the dynamic and disturbing events. If there is doubt and distress, it is consigned to the footnotes. A report becomes a sanitised act and one proceeds eventlessly as before. It’s as if we have created linearity, a grid which we want to stick to. Events outside don’t fit the official song line. Even civil society sticks to the officialdom of these narratives. It’s almost as if anything disturbing is sanitised into a debate on bad table manners, raising a stink or a smell.

Yet as one talks to more reflective social scientists and some of the younger journalists, one senses that annual surveys cover the non-events of the year and one pays lip service to the entrepreneur and leader of the year. Even the enthusiasm of editors can’t quite inflate these empty events into anything memorable. Talking around, the scholars I consulted told me that 2017 was a disturbing year as a result of three events. The first was a farm crisis; the second was the sheer epidemic of sexual assault on minors and the third was what one might call the crisis of looking at religion creatively and authentically. The year saw three major crises, but Indian democracy produced little response or understanding.


Let’s talk about the agricultural crisis. The demonstration by farmers became an empty spectacle as neither drought nor starvation touches middle class India. We read the demonstration as theatrical exercises with a bit of sentimentality and even bad taste because it is clear that agriculture as a way of life is doomed. The irony of the Green Revolution was to prove that farmers do not want to farm. Our experts feel farming, like weaving, is a sunset industry, and that India has started applying lifeboat ethics to farming.

A lifeboat ethics model argues in a Darwinian sense that people who are drowning should not be helped if they are too helpless to help themselves. The cost benefit of sheer economics argues that traditional farming is not worth it, and what we have tacitly done, as Devinder Sharma and others have pointed out, is to create an enclosure movement around agriculture. We are creating through government policy the parochialism of economics and sheer indifference, a long-run evacuation of agriculture.

The farmers’ demonstration is not merely about drought or suicides or fair prices. These are symptoms of a deeper cultural violence the government is perpetrating on agriculture as a way of life. The insidiousness of this violence is hidden in texts of policy and by a petty bourgeois government which will save Jallikattu, but ignore the fate of the farm. In a futuristic sense, the Narendra Modi government has inaugurated the death of agriculture.

The second crisis is not even recognised as a crisis. It is the crisis of sexuality and violence perpetrated on minors where rape and murder and the ritual erasure of the event become standard accompaniments. This is not just an event for psychologists to flutter over and sanitise with some technical terms. This concerns society. The newspapers report it every day, but the reporting is so banal that one flips the page without understanding the social tragedy hidden there. The reader senses a statistical normality to the event and shrugs it off. The scale of pathology frightens no one. Feminist radicals are busy with khap panchayats and with the rights of trans-genders, but a minor child being raped at an orphanage in a city is dismissed with bad or pop sociology, which rounds it off as a crisis of migration, a decline of the Indian family system; sometimes, it is even dismissed as an exaggeration. The victim disappears into anonymity. The scandal does not end with the crime; it lies in society’s indifference to it. Years ago, chain-snatching would be reported every day and we would shrug it off as a part of urban process. To do the same for rape and murder of minors makes little sense. The silence of civil society and the State is almost Kafkaesque.

The final crisis is the one of events and categories. It is a crisis of perception. It is the way our society constructs religion. We are caught between the arid dualisms of communalism/fundamentalism and the secularist perspective. The first condones murder; the second seems impotent before it. One is talking not just of a physical helplessness, but a philosophical one. We are caught in the irony that while religion is important to us, we seem to wallow in its pathologies, and paradoxically, spiritually becomes an extension of modern management. The deaths of Akhlaq and Afrazul are written off as causalities in a just war based on a piece of idiot history.  The power, the creativity, the meaning that a religion provides is lost. Even when one looks at the Dera incidents, one reads Ram Rahim as a sexual problem. No one asks about the faith of his followers, their search for utopia in small towns. Modern India needs to relook at its religious imagination and re-dream the power of syncretism.

Three crises haunted 2017 and we lack even a discourse, a language for dialogue.

All three are a crisis of categories, a crisis of violence, a crisis of perception and a crisis of democracy. If 2018 gets under way without an acknowledgement of the depths of these crises, it is doomed from the start. Our democracy desperately needs to rethink about itself as an imagination.

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