Why Politics is not a Dirty Word

Politics everywhere today is considered as a dirty term. And Indians, going by their mass political participations, probably the dirtiest. After all, as the mildest critique goes, politicians are inevitably corrupt, and as the rabidly sexist opinion polls try to prove, politicians are no better than prostitutes. Becoming a professional politician in life is not encouraged as a normal childhood dream, our schools do not orient students towards political practices, and the society at large does not expect otherwise good citizens to train as prospective politicians. Indeed, whether politics becomes the last resort of the proverbial scoundrel, or the first, remains unresolved so far as the Indian experience is concerned; but it is rarely a career option for those who vie meritocratic quests.

And yet, contrary to popular assertions, the problem with India is not the politics itself but a lack of political consciousness. The special disdain attached to politics in contemporary India is the result of a constant refusal to employ a political lens to everyday thoughts and activities. The ideological notion surrounding politics in India equates it to almost sacred electoral processes, instead of letting it be used as a lens to understand how the material world creates the ruling ideas of a given time. Whereas all of us could utilize politics as a tool of revolutionary creative emancipations through consciousness-raising, our primary engagement with politics ends up becoming monotonously static, reactionary and at best, individualistic. We have not just reduced the usefulness of politics through prescribed notions, but using a tacit understanding with the status quo framework whereby a ceremonious democratic setup defines our political selves, we have also been harbouring, to quote Engels, a false consciousness. In other words, we think we are aware of our political selves, but we are merely participating in an idealistic process deliberately, albeit wrongly, defined by the ruling class as political.

“the Gita’s idealism lies in the claim that the system of Chaturvarnya is based on the qualities, actions and merits of an individual, and not upon the birth”

This confusion of alignment with opportunistic ideologies as political consciousness-raising eventually leads to early deaths of revolutionary initiatives for a just and equitable society we deserve. And we deem it only natural to grudgingly or gladly accept our subordinated status vis-à-vis our sacred yet oppressive institutions, the expanding imperialistic powers, and submit ourselves to systems of oppressions manifested via nationalism, religion, race, and so on. Whereas adherence to ruling ideologies sustains one’s belief in subordination, a political consciousness on the other hand prepares one to recognize and overthrow that very subordination. Therefore, while the state apparatus attempts at normalizing oppressions through ruling philosophies, ethics and moralities, the politically conscious subjects who constantly work towards recognizing and challenging those very foundational ideologies are systematically marginalized. Today’s India reflects this remarkable tension between the inanimate ruling ideals and the emerging politically conscious challenges.


Ideology vs. Consciousness –

Although Indians have by and large been depicted as argumentative and hence politically proactive, a critical study to examine the extent to which our political consciousness is allowed to develop and prevail is yet to be undertaken.

Many scholars, including Amartya Sen, have referred to the dialogic tradition in India dating back to the days of the Mahabharata as instances of our proactive political lives. This fixation with Hindu scriptures as a basis for Indian political tradition is at once dangerous and reactionary. For instance, what the Bhagvat Gita expects is an adherence to the basic positions taken up by the Gods. Whereas framing Lord Krishna as a universal genius is to abide by an ideology, revealing the reactionary nature of that very ideology is raising of a political consciousness. Our education system has traditionally taught us the valuable lessons from the scriptures or from our founding fathers; what they have failed to do is raise our political awareness about them by encouraging us to pose critical questions.

Let’s first turn to the scriptures: the Gita’s idealism lies in the claim that the system of Chaturvarnya is based on the qualities, actions and merits of an individual, and not upon the birth. A person, therefore, becomes a sama darshi upon reaching the stage of a sthitaprajna. At that point, such a person can then look upon a learned brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a chandala as equal. So not only is a chandala bracketed with a dog, their reaching the same status with a brahmana has never been a reality as per our ancient texts. It has remained merely an ideal. What political consciousness does is it duly intervenes at this time and rejects such scriptures as politically reactionary.

Even if the Gita did not explicitly promote a certain caste-society, the Chaturvanya system never mentions that those who have the habits of menials should be treated as shudras; it instead says that shudras “naturally” possess the mentality of servants and need to follow certain habits to aspire equal status with the brahmana, who on the other hand, conveniently is born as one – and is hardly going to vacate that status.

It is necessary to evoke Hindu scriptures in this context only to emphasize that it was not Lord Krishna alone who lived in denial, but more importantly in our modern times, we mere mortals also do. We deny our own casteist privileges even as a section of people continues to be treated as lower than us; we deny our classist positions even as we uphold the system of hiring domestic servants; we deny our jingoism while considering impositions of curfews as necessary for the Kashmiris; we deny our homophobia while retaining marriage laws that do not recognize same-sex relationships; we deny our role in sustaining a pervasive rape culture when we do not acknowledge marital rape as valid; we deny our endorsement of terrorism while reposing faith in a government that brutalizes the poor, in a religion that castigates women, and in a judiciary that is designed to protect the rich and punish the poor.

Going by the status quo, we either uphold our clearly flawed ancient scriptures and modern legal codes as sacrosanct, or promptly dismiss them as irrelevant enough not to be confronted. Whereas for the former, professing our indifference towards politics becomes a sign of our piousness; for those belonging to the latter variety, we proclaim to be sufficiently moderate to be not aggrieved by texts. By thus isolating political repercussions from ruling ideologies, we refuse to engage with the needs to reexamine our personal lives, let alone address the root causes of societal challenges.


Personal is Political –

To explore how the personal intersects with the political is to merely examine how the personal lives in denial of the political. Such an undertaking also provides a necessary trajectory whereby various idealistic philosophies posit themselves as binary opposites to politics. The acceptable paths in life are considered clean and moral, while politics is immediately discredited as corrupt and immoral. From childhood, we are encouraged to live with absolute notions of virtues and vices, of personal and political. As a result, we cleverly distinguish between our thoughts and actions, and remarkably manoeuvre and skillfully compromise as we go along in life. In our personal lives therefore, God reigns supreme, but in political lives, corruption becomes mandatory. In our temples, we refuse Dalits entry, but within our Constitution, we claim to treat all equally. On the streets, we can question every authority; but inside our families, silence reigns when the man of the family speaks. Such contradictions abound because we do not sufficiently employ political lenses to understand how our environment determines our consciousness, or vice versa. Indeed, the dependence of consciousness upon social reality is so complete that personal inevitably becomes an enactment of our political being. But without an education system geared towards encouraging us to ask critical questions about these dichotomies, we fail to notice our constant political involvements – of both progressive and reactionary nature – in the fluidity of cultural practices; instead we treat binaries as inviolable.

Paulo Freire emphasizes on the need of such critical education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation. Although the dialectical relations of women and men with the world exist independently of how these relations are perceived – or whether or not they are perceived at all, it is also true that the form of action they adopt is to a large extent a function of how they perceive themselves in the world.” Taking Marx one step further, Freire says that critical education as the practice of freedom does not treat individuals “as abstract, isolated, independent and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people.” Citing Sartre’s further examinations, he writes, “consciousness and world are simultaneous: consciousness neither precedes the world nor follows it.”

“This lie is so vicious that Aamir Khan in a recent interview claimed that Bollywood is run entirely on merit. No nepotism, no politics. Only talent. Consequently, talent is considered apolitical too.”

This radical feminist understanding of personal being political is based on the premise that our social commitments, or the lack of them are extensions of our personal locations of privileges and oppressions. Towards that extent, offering a prayer to a sexist god is very much a political act just as endorsing discriminatory places of worship is a political act and so is our tolerance of patriarchy within family setups. We deny the political nature of these acts, only because it inconveniences our all-embracing notions of imaginary equality and peace that we enjoy through comfortable lenses of un-interrogated privileges. Recognizing our everyday acts as political inevitably propels us towards choosing between options that disturb a sense of tranquility; it forces us to become agitated at seemingly innocent movies, playful jokes, and otherwise enjoyable music. Moreover, it compels us to recognize our privileges as political battlefields. It even equates us with those very dirty politicians we have grown to despise. It overthrows our little Utopias, our little feel-good idealisms, our organic inner peace and instead, leaves us stranded as realists who must choose their political battles.


The Modern Utopians –

With increasing stress on depoliticization and with the so-called ‘end of ideology’, the goodness of an apolitical world without any “-isms” is being offered as a panacea to a people otherwise occupied with mental slavery. A meritocratic Utopia is being unveiled with unprecedented endorsements. Cinema celebrities, bestselling authors, relationship experts, religious gurus, corporate success stories, and our history books – all claim to be apolitical projects. Like experimental sciences, our human endeavours all claim to be purely objective. Even the media houses take pride in being apolitical. Public personalities who are not professional politicians create recipes for disasters if they accidentally endorse political parties. Staying ‘safe’ becomes staying apolitical.

This lie is so vicious that Aamir Khan in a recent interview claimed that Bollywood is run entirely on merit. No nepotism, no politics. Only talent. Consequently, talent is considered apolitical too. Hundreds of years of carefully and deliberately keeping generations of people excluded from having access to certain branches of knowledge, and then treating such knowledge as pivotal yardsticks to assess talent levels are all at once dismissed as apolitical. Meritorious students from elite medical colleges in India also disown politics by opposing reservation bills for the marginalized sections lest the ‘cobblers’ dare to become ‘doctors’ – both being viewed as inflexible aspirational categories for people owing to their religious births. Even as there is a great need to oppose such monopolistic and hierarchical worldviews at our academic institutions, there is a prevailing insistence on doing away with rhetoric and politically charged research works – just when the minds are young, and possess critical questions and unbridled imaginations. Instead, the educated are manufactured in almost a mechanical fashion to profess politically indifferent outlook as the only way to attain success in life, whereby success too plays out to be a standardized construct.


Indifference as Politics –

Just as the European nations that claimed to be neutral during World War II were indirectly aiding the Nazis, so are the politically indifferent only sustaining the status quo. Indifference to politics is itself a political position. It is reactionary to the extent that those who claim to be apolitical are those who unquestioningly embrace their subordination as a matter of fact – as a fixed notion, and not as a matter of injustice around which political activisms must be organised. Before any changes can be brought about, however, it is critical to remember that even the standards of success and the yardsticks of merit are guided by the ruling ideologies that need to be challenged by political consciousness-raising, so that the eventual goals of political actions become radically different from the existing ones. Just as there is no objectivity in news reporting— originating as it does through agenda-setting, editorial prioritizing and prerogatives— there is no such human activity that is politically neutral. From the toothbrush brand to the dietary choices, from the clothes one wears to the movies one enjoys, from the heroes one worships to the ones one does not worship – every act of ours is guided by our political understanding of the world around us, every thought about life is a political way of making sense of things around us. And precisely because of that, there are relentless attempts on the part of our governments to limit the political impacts of a citizenry to the maximum extent possible and just to use people as occasional voters who gleefully maintain the ruling order.

Ruling classes succeed in sanitizing the population of political activisms by means of characterizing the arena of politics as onerous, even dishonorable. “Politics is not for everyone”, warns the professional politician. And when the politically conscious join the arena to denounce the status quo, they are immediately depicted as unpatriotic and routinely harassed – some are even murdered by the state only to dissuade others from following their examples. In India, the prevailing antipathy to politics is deliberately construed, because it is far easier to rule over a politically unaware population, rather than remaining accountable to a politically conscious. As we continue to adopt capitalistic “free market” ideologies, such attempts are becoming subtler, and somewhat invisible. The task then is to deconstruct and bring them to the fore, so they can be adequately challenged. In doing so, we need to contextualize historical lessons as necessary weapons to shape a new future with.


Forgotten Politics of Anti-colonialism –

Since India has arguably failed in attaining the goals of independence, it has almost become fashionable these days to glorify the British colonial era. In view of the corrupt political structures, the favourite national pastime today involves criticizing various party leaders for all the failures – and in turn to summarily vilify politics as a professional choice. We need smaller government, the argument goes. In tandem, privatization of all resources is demanded as a solution to India’s crisis. The more we can sell of India, the more India will rise and shine, we are told. Everything that India’s anticolonial movements had once stood for is waning in relevance today. Predictably enough, the new visionaries of India are remarkably contrasted with the visionaries from the days of freedom struggle.

What is forgotten about the anti-colonial struggles is that India had the most unique and indeed the largest freedom movement in world history. The entire country was geared towards a common purpose – of fighting British colonialism. A vast majority of people chose to become politically aware and inculcated varying methods of resistance. But that victory was a victory against the British only. It was not a victory over any war against our own racism, casteism, religious supremacism, military aspirations or despotic ruling class tendencies. With these and more ills continuing to plague the country today – including the immoral occupation of Kashmir, violence against women and state terror networks targeting so-called Maoists. We need to get politicized once again at the mass level: to know of the true history of our people’s struggles, and to know of our decisive roles in formulating the future that we must secure for India, and by extension, for the rest of the world – by participating as active political actors, not as passive audience of a corrupt climate that gains from status quo furtherance.


The Fear and the Future – 

One dissuading argument against politicization is the widespread skepticism surrounding actual political practices. All major political parties in India, barring none, have proved themselves so inept at resolving crises and so hypocritical in taking stands in matters of societal welfare, that more citizens are organising themselves through virtual social media rather than through established political parties. Perhaps it is the sign of our changing times and perhaps technology indeed does play a crucial role in formulating new politics. But to take Gill Scott-Heron one step further, revolution will not be virtually networked. A mind can be momentarily politicised via technological advancements and occasional outrages orchestrated by sensational news media, but the political consciousness to change the world requires constant and active engagements with painful processes of unlearning, active pursuance of critical education, agitated state of revolutionary attitude, and finally adaptation of organizing tactics for political formations. Not just wishful anarchical outbursts of occasional anger, what political consciousness demands are theory, commitment and planning.

The good news is, this unending process of realising the potentials of our political selves begin in our own minds in relation to our immediate environment. The uniqueness of social justice lessons and politically radical positions lies in the need to discuss them over dining table conversations with children, bedroom arguments with spouses, classroom dialogues with students, and workplace organizing around colleagues. The key is in recognizing that so long as one of us is unfree, none of us are really free. And since statistically speaking, more number of people in the world continue to live in an un-free state today than ever before, it is rather urgent that we engage in politics, in raising our political consciousness, and in fighting not just on our behalf, but also on behalf of the others; for politics of indifference spares none, and as Audre Lorde says, there is no hierarchy of oppression:

“Within the lesbian community I am Black, and with the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression….I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

Saswat Pattanayak is a New York-based journalist, photographer, atheist, third-wave feminist, LGBT ally, black power comrade and academic non-elite who refuses to give up his association with Kindle. A true comrade.

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