Re-presenting intolerance

Print edition : March 04, 2016

IMAGINE the following, like a scene in a Godard film. It is a compact shot of two characters seated across each other at a table in a cafe against the transparent glass wall so that in the framed space between them we have a clear view of the kerb and the street outside. Their heated discussion, which is the foregrounded visual and sound, is about whether or not it is appropriate or fair to call contemporary society intolerant. Even as they speak we can see (but not hear as the noise from outside is shut off by the insulating glass) two guys on a motorbike gunning a pedestrian down, a wild mob armed with swords or knives setting upon a man or a woman, another group daubing a man’s face and clothes with black ink, a despondent young man stringing himself up, or some such sights which have an unmistakable current resonance. The pantomime of violence outside naturally compels our piqued attention and we may choose not to look at the conversationalists. But what they say is the only accompanying soundtrack. They do occasionally glance in the direction of these violent scenes taking place just across the glass partition, but continue with their debate as if all that did not matter.

The media discourse on intolerance in India is a bit like that between the two earnest talkers. It seems irrespective of, rather than about, the actual instances of intolerance out there. The interpretations and opinions are stacked against the facts which are there for all to see. True, as purveyors of such media would and do argue, it is the media that brings the crimes of intolerance to our notice in the first place. But it is the same media which proceeds to obfuscate and euphemise and abstract and deconstruct them so that they become a ritualistic rhetoric of representation and lose their sting as pricks of our collective conscience, and even their culpability in the popular consciousness as the wanton inhuman acts they are. Their criminality is blunted by smooth talking. We end up being engaged rather than enraged by acts of rank injustice.

A.K. Ramanujan somewhere talks about the four modes of knowledge in the Indian tradition, and these, interestingly, correspond in good degree to journalistic tools to arrive at truth-telling: “pratyaksa”, or that which is manifest and can be directly perceived; “anumaana”, or that which can be inferred or deduced or so constructed; “aaptavaakya”, or the oral account of those who have the knowledge (the equivalent perhaps of the reporter’s story); and “smriti”, or memory, which is required to recognise even what is directly perceived, or remember and contextualise what has been seen. We are so peculiarly, perhaps pathologically, conditioned by the media, we have grown so parasitically dependent on what is represented to us by the media, that we may be losing our capacity for direct perception of what is happening right under our noses. What should be obvious (“pratyaksa”) is not, and we need the TV or newspaper to not only report the facts for us (the “aaptavaakya” function) but to make meaning, interpret them. This role of interpretation, of deducing meaning, or of “anumaana”, overwhelms and replaces what should be simply obvious, or “pratyaksa”, in the first place, or what should have been a factually reported account, “aaptavaakya”, left with us to arrive at our own conclusions.

Ramanujan cites the plight of King Dushyanta in Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam to drive home the point about “anumaana” replacing “pratyaksa” in the absence, in this instance, of “smriti”, or memory. Dushyanta, who has lost the memory of his relationship with Shakuntala and yet has flashes of what has been, laments,

“Like one who doubts the existence

of an elephant who walks in front of him

but feels convinced by seeing footprints,

my mind has taken strange turns.”

We are so mediatised that we cannot see the elephant of intolerance in the room, but need it to be re-presented for us by the constructs and inferences of media punditry. Often, though, that punditry makes a donkey of the elephant. So we have a situation where what should be obvious, “pratyaksa”, is up for discussion, for negotiation. “Anumaana” becomes not a function of logic but of what is passed off as preponderant or majoritarian opinion. “Aaptavaakya” is the manufactured disinformation unleashed in the mainstream and alternative online and social media. And “smriti” becomes, perversely, a convenient tool to hark back to, and keep harping on, earlier dark periods of intolerance in our history and ask what is so different this time.

What is different this time is that the intolerance is not episodic or in the form of isolated acts, but like a virus unleashed and systematically afflicting targeted individuals, communities and institutions. What is different this time is the Pavlovian response mechanism in place to tackle those who dare protest: those returning State awards are anti-national or seditious; a Hindu speaking up against discrimination of Muslims is an appeaser or pseudo-secularist; a Muslim voicing concern about intolerance is shown his place—across the border in Pakistan. There are additionally verbal taunts and physical intimidation which provide the chilling effect that deters others, including the tamer sections of the media, from speaking up. Other sections of the media which will talk about it, instead of calling a spade a spade, often beat around the bush and, in the name of some ill-conceived journalistic balance, temporise with the forces they should be taking on.

The same media have been able to interrogate more even-handedly and effectively, even proactively, some other types or aspects of religious intolerance that have surfaced or resurfaced recently—the agitation led by Tripti Desai for women’s entry into the sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra , the legal petition against the age-old practice of menstruating women not being allowed to visit the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, or the more recent rule against women having access to the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai; or the revelations of sexual abuse of minor children in madrasas in Kerala, by Regina; or a Saudi cleric banning chess as un-Islamic; or ordination and performance of sacraments being denied to women in the Christian church.

Intra-religious matters that may be sensitive for sections of the people are nevertheless taken up in the secular spirit, whereas when it comes to the political assertion and aggrandisement of the majoritarian religion and the consequent sense of insecurity and intolerance this engenders in the minorities, the media tend to pull, rather than deliver, the punches.

If atheism and activist rationalism are endangered categories as the fate that befell Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare starkly reminds us, religions themselves are increasingly intolerant of non-denominational, neutral spiritual spaces, as the dogmatic and ulema-driven Islam’s impatience with liberal schools like Sufism or the Hindutva attempt to appropriate the Sivagiri mutt in Kerala illustrate.

“Atheistic spiritualism”

In an initiative which is unique for the political Left, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury, was at Sivagiri at the beginning of this year where he alluded not unfavourably to what he called “atheistic spiritualism” as opposed to theistic religion because it was based on “the elevation of human consciousness” which could be achieved “as much by a materialist philosophy as it can be through theistic theology”. He emphasised the humanist vision of Marxism and its similarity to Sree Narayana Guru’s belief in the oneness of humanity, and put the oft-misconstrued quotation of Marx, about religion being the opium of the masses, in its proper context.

Yechury pointed out that while the opium metaphor gets wide play, what precedes it in the quotation is normally, deliberately he suggests, suppressed. This is the portion where Marx observes: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Yechury elaborated: “Religion is the opium in the sense that it is as potent as opium in transporting human beings to an illusory world. For a human being who is oppressed, religion provides the escape, the relief…. This is the strength and power of religion. It is like opium which people are fed to lull themselves into submission, robbing them of their inherent potential to change the real world, and hence remain in conditions which appear outside of their comprehension and their control.”

“Marxism”, was Yechury’s conclusion, “does not attack religion per se. Its attack is on the conditions that give rise to the conditions that perpetuate the hold of religion on the people…. Therefore, as communists, we can assure you that the CPI(M) will be the foremost upholder of every individual’s right to choose his/her faith and to maintain his/her beliefs and right to propagate them.” That interface of politics and religion and the potential it holds are far far different from the crude and ruthless deployment of religion for political mobilisation.