Politics and its meanings

Every discussion is being framed as a disagreement.

Now that the dust has settled on the sequence of events set in motion by Nayantara Sahgal’s decision to “return” her Sahitya Akademi Award, barring a few cinema halls here and there still refusing to show a movie starring Shah Rukh Khan, it may be time to begin considering what we have learned from all this. As a writer, one of the tragedies of this entire episode is that it illuminated the decrepit state of one particular word — politics.

Many years ago I was waiting to meet a friend who worked at a major TV news organisation when I heard the voice of a famous TV anchor. “You have no idea what politics is,” he was declaiming to a suitably chastised interlocutor. Coming from a person whose own idea of politics, as put on display every evening to a national audience, was limited to the unending tussle between political parties, this seemed a bit rich, but it was my most unambiguous encounter with the notion that for India’s power elite, the polysemic word “politics” had lost many of its more interesting meanings.

And so it was that Sahgal’s act was deemed political, as were the follow-ups by numerous other Sahitya Akademi Award winners and fellowship holders. Similarly, the public statements by filmmakers and actors who ventured to use their surpassing popularity to support fully or partly the actions of the writers were dubbed political. But what was it these people were trying to do? They were expressing a fear that certain groups were feeling a sense of impunity since the BJP government came to power. And while it is debatable whether this fear is justified but, to my mind, this was not the debate that was carried out. On the various kinds of media that are now available to us, these actions were called “political” in the kind of tone generally reserved for the word “criminal”. In the broader sense of the word, these actions could be seen as attempts to draw attention to the arrogation of relatively unchecked power by certain groups, an arrogation whose consequence was a diminishing of the status of certain other groups. A process, these writers and cinema folks were claiming, had been set in motion that was recasting the balance of power in our society, and this recasting was not acceptable. Drawing attention to this process was a way to appeal to the state — and to the people who are, in theory at least, the sovereign under a democratic set up — to check this process. This seems to satisfy the textbook definition of a political act.

But were these actions designed to benefit a particular political party or parties? Some of our most prominent and popular commentators chose to focus on this loaded question in order to undermine the possibility of debate and discussion on the more important question of whether the fears being expressed were justified or not. Bihar Assembly elections provided these disingenuous critics a convenient peg to hang their innuendo-laden hats on. An effort was made to diminish the political act of these writers and artists by applying a diminished version of the adjective “political” to their actions.

Perhaps the important thing that we need to learn from this whole episode is that in our ongoing culture wars the parties involved are not as interested in debating as they are in framing the terms of the debate.

Every discussion is being framed as a disagreement and readers are shaking or nodding their heads vehemently rather than considering and analysing the opinion that is being offered to them. It is not my intention to rehash the tired arguments as to why this is happening at this moment, nor do I want to take this opportunity to bring out ahistorical handwringings about what the world has come to. My intention here is only to try to preserve some of the most important meanings of the word “political”. Because if a word loses its meaning, then those who use words to address their fellow humans lose power. Being a writer, I am one such person. That makes my effort to restore the diminishing lustre of the word “political” a political act.

Amitabha Bagchi is the author of Above Average. His most recent novel, This Place, was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award 2014 and nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Prize 2015.

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( Source : deccan chronicle )
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