SPEAKING FREELY India fluent in the language of violence
By Samir Nazareth
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Freedom is a prerequisite of any democratic, secular and pluralistic society. Freedom has many connotations to it, including everything from the right to voice one's opinions to the
right to ignore opinions and carry on unperturbed – all without fear.
There is also the freedom to access socially sanctioned systems to improve one's life. All these are enshrined in the rules and constitution of a society and country.
To make the most of these freedoms, without hindering others, opportunities are constantly being created. This process has manifold benefits, with just two being the improvement of the self and the creation of employment by those providing these opportunities.
Language as freedom and a tool of democracy
I recently visited the New Delhi World Book Fair being held at Pragati Maidan. In one of the stalls there was a man selling a book on the English language.
On a white board he was detailing the many wonders of this book to a group of potential buyers. He was giving example of the simplified way to differentiate between tenses, which was something that the book dealt with. While explaining this he mentioned that English skills were key to careers.
Besides being viewed as the key to unlock one's future, there is little doubt that many see English as a language of economic and social progress.
Although the language is not endemic to this land, it is becoming part of its socio-economic and cultural ethos. Many would say that this language is part of a colonial hangover and prevents vernacular speakers from moving up, but English is creating a new level playing field by not only making its use a desired skill but also by opening avenues to newer thoughts to be read, argued, accepted and ignored.
A key aspect for democracy is the generation and dissemination of ideas. Acquisition and use of language hastens and strengthens the democratic process. Thus one could say for a democracy to flourish, there is need to learn more than one language so that the exchange of ideas is not hampered by a lack of comprehension.
Language therefore not only becomes the fertile soil on which democracy flourishes, it is also the tool of democracy. It is the tool of debate, argument, conversation, sharing, of spreading of views and ideas and most importantly of countering them.
Using other means that forces one's view down the throat of others is gaining currency because the language of force and violence, though not used by everyone, can be easily comprehended by all. One wonders how this can be justified in a country which achieved its freedom through non-violent means, and where people are taught from childhood the value of democracy, freedom and respect for other views.
It is in this context that one needs to look at recent shocking incidents that will have far reaching consequences for India as a secular, pluralistic, democratic country. The first being the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Penguin, its publisher.
The second being a member of parliament bringing a knife into Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian parliament) and another using pepper spray on other members there. In both cases it was not language as commonly understood that made its presence felt, in the former, it is argued that the covert language of threat of violence lead to the withdrawal of the book and in the latter it was blatant thuggery that spoke loud and clear.
Diversity, but not in thought
India is a country where the cuisine and language change every few hundred kilometers, where the major religions have many sects within them, and where there are many different permutations and combinations of social stratification. For a country that is as diverse as India is it should come as a surprise that diverse thoughts are not accepted. There is a reason for this.
Being a pluralistic society does not naturally connote an acceptance of different ideas. In India, with pluralism comes an inherent feeling of insecurity within some sections of this country.
Some sections in India think that they have been taken for granted, while others assume that they are constantly being threatened. Being taken for granted has many aspects to it, it could range from the feeling of being disrespected to the need to rectify notions of history and to force and coerce assimilation.
Others assume that their identity is being lost, disrespected or subsumed. In the context of India, one could argue that pluralism gives birth to fragile sensibilities. People are quick to take umbrage and then resort to violence, which they deem to be a justified language of response.
It is in such an environment that books get banned. The banning of books is to assuage these feelings, which if left unattended can lead to violence committed by those who feel targeted by the book as a remedy to regain their "hurt pride" or sometimes to force a ban. The banning of books is based on assumptions of irrational emotions and the language used to communicate it - violence.
As these bans can only be decreed by the government the bans always have political connotations, which are understood as pleasing a particular community or person. The books that have been banned by the Indian government range in topics from religion to political and business icons. But it is not only the government that prevents ideas from being disseminated by the banning of books due to a suggestion of violence, universities have been forced to remove books from curriculum for similar reasons.
Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey, short-listed for the Booker prize, was removed from the English syllabus of Mumbai University after threats by Shiv Sena, Mumbai's very own right-wing Hindu fundamentalist group. Essays by A K Ramanujan were removed from the syllabus of Delhi University after identical threats were made by the the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) the student wing of the right-wing Hindu political party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Though we as a society have not yet reached that stage, it does bring to mind Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and the "Sauberung" a literary cleansing of un-German books in the Nazi years.
There is much to be learnt from the German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, who said "Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too."
Brute physical force as parliamentary language
The inability to use language to put forth a counter point and share ideas in society is mirrored in the Indian parliament. For the last few years the violence that has permeated into the hallowed portals of parliament is a reflection of the paucity of verbal and intellectual command in society to counter opposing view points. Members of parliament have shouted slogans, vandalized their place of work and now brought a knife and used pepper spray in this edifice of democracy.
Within the parliament there seems to be a sense of desperation which is best served by violence. Violence magnifies an issue vitiating the atmosphere to an extent where matters are put off to ensure the safety of members and to maintain some semblance of decorum of the house. The violence within this institution has increased by gradual degrees to culminate in the most recent mayhem.
In the last few years some of the incidents include members of parliament from the BJP bringing wads of currency for horse-trading, members shouting to drown out others, members running to the well of the house, members snatching papers from the speaker and from other members.
One of the reasons why these people get away with it is because they are not accountable for their actions and also because such acts are respected by many in Indian society who see violence as a viable, justifiable and proper response.
The rationale of violence as a language
This form of language has less to do with putting forth a counter view and more to do with physically preventing something from happening. Violence, though anti-intellectual, is both visually and mentally effective. It imprints on the mind of everyone a desperation that results in the others being brutalized and victimized. It is the most cost-effective, fastest and complete way to quell dissent, prevent the formation and circulation of new ideas. This ultimately results in everybody falling in line.
The use of force as a language to communicate does not bode well for this country, because force implies segregating society in terms of the strong and weak, it suggests brute strength over knowledge and erudition and disrespect for those unable to match brute strength with brute strength. It implies a disrespect for the cerebral and an indication of the absence of it amongst the coercers.
More importantly it rejects pluralism as a frame work for society because the use of physical strength is about vanquishing and an indication of lack of patience to hear out the other side and respect another point of view to enable it to exist.
People understand that while ideas and views are not permanent and are generative, physical pain and death are permanent. It makes sense for people to forgo thought and the space for it than to find themselves in pain or dead. Interestingly the thought that violence will work is also generative and educative in the sense that more people will take to it when they see its efficacy, in some ways it is dishearteningly democratic in that anyone can employ it.
It is the adopting of this language of violence that prevents us from building a country where, as Rabindranath Tagore wrote: "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free, Where the world has not been broken up into fragments, By narrow domestic walls."
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a commentator based in India. He can be contacted at [email protected]