Knock-Knock, No One There

FOR THOSE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE 2019 GENERAL ELECTIONS, HERE’S A WARNING – IT WILL LOOK EXACTLY LIKE THE U.P. ASSEMBLY AND DELHI MCD POLLS. THE BJP WILL SWEEP IT.

One heard the argument first in the preparation to U.P. elections after demonetization. It sounded something like this: “The BJP has to lose. They’ve ruined the economy. People have been standing in lines. They will vote them out.  Thousands of jobs have been lost. There will be payback — you just wait and see. ”

What people wrapped in their own bubbles refused to see was in the pictures they themselves were sharing every day — people were standing in lines.

Instead of rioting or breaking down bank and party offices, people dutifully stood in lines month after month, hoping… begging to be handed out their own money.

No opposition politician or intellectual drove by in his car, either of the left, center or right, throwing out wads of cash from his car window. No one came to fight with bank staff to make sure every one got their due and cash wasn’t siphoned off to VIPs. No Rahul Gandhi or Kejriwal barged into the Prime Minister’s or went on a hunger strike to ask Why?

But many believed the great democratic process would have its revenge and the BJP would be thrown out of power in U.P.  But it wasn’t, was it? It even came to power in Goa and Manipur.

Political pundits who had to eat their words came up with  schadenfreude — or the pleasure comparatively poor people might have got, in seeing comparatively rich people suffer.  Gautam Benegal in the august tradition of all lazy liberals gave his yatha praja, tatha raja verdict. Senior journalists who should have known better, swallowed his lazy translation of Alexis de Tocqueville quote: “people get the government we deserve,” as an original and profound thought.

And then Delhi MCD happened. Some explanations will appear, no doubt. Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India already has one, of sorts.  Yadav may well call for opposition unity. Benegal might well find more fellow travelers.

The BJP will still win the 2019 electoral results. Here’s why.
 

1. They have the men, they have the might, they have the money too

More, they have the mood on their side. And sheer brilliance.

Performance, facts, data — these have ceased to matter. Those who think the Sangh is stupid and call this “the Jumla Sarkar,” have got the most important communication principle wrong.

I’m told Stanford has repackaged it as moral psychology. But when people of my generation were educating ourselves, in Aristotlean times, “Jumla” used to be called Rhetoric.

The Sangh is a master of rhetoric.

It knows how to create the exact rhetoric, at different levels of information consumers.

That’s why it seems to contradict itself. But it really isn’t. It’s merely a communication strategy. They always have the message right on point for whoever they want to connect with. Sometimes this message spills over to other consumers and creates confusion.

The MNC consumers get the swadeshi message, and the “integral humanism” consumers get the “rape dead Muslim women,” message.

But the Sangh is aware of the spillover and has a management strategy in place. It uses key spokesmen, at key points, to manage the costs. Sambit Patra and Shaina NC for daily briefings. Kanchan Gupta or more involved conversations. Makarand Paranjpe for academia, Swarajyamag for intellectuals.

The riff-raff are too many to count. Zee News , whose strategy is evolving brilliantly on a daily basis; Rajat Sharma, ; newspapers they’re buying or bullying by the dozens in all languages; Shiv Sena and it’s communication factory and so on. .

Yet, when the costs become too high — as with Smriti Irani — the Sangh doesn’t hesitate to ruthlessly cut the cord.

They are playing the long con. It is not stupidity. It is brilliance.

2. The Opposition has none of it

No opposition party has the men, the might, the money, the mood or even a tenth of the brilliance the Sangh has.

At the time of our greatest peril, there is a tendency to be most nostalgic. But nostalgia can sometimes be a friend. Sometimes, it can be an enemy of the future.

This time, Nostalgia is the enemy. 

Nehru is dead. So is Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. They are the past. The Congress party itself was born in the throes of the Freedom Struggle. It is over a 100 years old.

This struggle needs a newer, more youthful leadership. People with fire in their belly, hungry and angry. People who refuse to compromise.

The Congress isn’t that party anymore. It hasn’t been that party for a few decades. There is not a single Congress worker who will march unless he’s paid to. There is no compromise that the Congress won’t make. There is no party that a Congressman will not defect to.

The Congress is the party that made BJP possible; that makes BJP possible every single election. I have friends who are die-hard Congress fans. But if ever there was a time for bitter truths, this is it. Surely, some things matter more than loyalty to a party?

The Congress is dead in the water. Let’s write its obituary and get on with it.

3. The non-Congress Opposition. Well, what about them?

AAP? It lost Delhi Municipal. Kejriwal threatened a “movement” if he lost. And made his first major compromise with a ‘graceful defeat.’ It will be first of many major compromises he will make.

Second Rule of Fight Club — Don’t make threats you don’t follow up on.

Then there’s the little matter of AAP’s non existence in most of India.

Local opposition parties? Either they’re lining up to tie-up with the BJP; or they’re all fighting with each other. U.P. and Bengal are eminent examples. Delhi is too, by the way. Read the non-EVM reason that Yogendra Yadav gave for Kejriwal’s loss.

If you’re looking for a viable, existing, political opposition to the BJP in 2019; Knock Knock — there’s no one there.

4. EVMs – How many parties does it take to vote for the BJP?

Doesn’t matter, they all lead to the BJP button anyway. Yep. There are EVM jokes now. It’s a thing.

I love technology, always have, always will. I normally believe that the solution to the ills of technology is more technology. But on this, I am that loony – the one who believes that some things that are best analog or brick and mortar.

MONEY and VOTES are two of those things, I firmly believe, should stay physical. There is evidence and more that EVMs are giving out false votes. Yet, we are always given an explanation we believe, because we want to. 

We buy silly arguments like “only some are”; But they came “from U.P. and didn’t get enough time to rest (purge, puke?)”; But “they were not provided by the EC!”

The worst yesterday: “Tamper-able doesn’t mean they were tampered with!!!”

The meme forgets to mention that they were apparently designed so that one cannot prove they were tampered with. (n alleged security feature so stupid, it beggars belief.

But we are ready to buy any argument that doesn’t force us to make hard choices.

POSTSCRIPT

So what are the hard choices?

The first hard choice is to let go of the imagination of hope.

To let go, is not to despair, but to stop pretending.

Reality begins where pretensions stop.

And it is only when we face reality, that we can begin to imagine action at all.

The Sangh is here to stay. It is not going away in 2019. Its followers will be raiding our homes, our shops, our kids, wives and daughters. It is killing people on the roads, in broad daylight. No party or leader has stopped them. No one will stop them in the future.

No one’s coming to help us. It is going to get worse, not better.

Now what are you prepared to do to save yourselves?

EOM.

Shortlink

Image Credits The Daily English Show

The fallacies of the January Electoral Judgement – Part 1

Where fundamental rights are a post hoc reference, instead of the benchmark against which laws have to be measured before they pass — jurisprudence will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

That is what happened this January 2nd in the Supreme Court’s constitutional bench judgement on corrupt electoral practices  in the case of Abhiram Singh V/s C.D.Commachen

Both majority and minority opinions completely sidelined fundamental issues and the original context of the case. So did subsequent commentators on the subject.

The Wire called it the new Kesavananda Bharati moment. The Scroll called it deceptive, or “not what it seems,” in as much as it might have rendered Ambedkar guilty of corrupt practices. Some called it “two views of democracy.”

One description was particularly apt: appealing in the name of religion is a corrupt practice.

That would have been a great revelation had it not been for the fact that Indian democracy has been founded on the basis of appealing in the name of religion, caste, community, region and language. And it continues to run on that basis.

Gandhi appealed in the name of religion. Peaceably of course, but he did. Ambedkar appealed in the name of caste. For the rightful improvement of the Dalits’ unbearable agony — but he did. He agitated for and with Nehru’s help, ensured the division of this country into linguistic states — that’s appealing in the name of language.

The Akali Dal, the Telugu Desam, the Jharkand Mukti Morcha, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Dravida Parties, the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen –by definition, these are all communal parties. Exactly like the Shiv Sena and the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party.

So what was the decisive revelation and judgement about? What did it hope to actually achieve?

Just as in the Anthem Judgement , the honourable bench took no time to figure out how its judgement could, or would ever, be enforceable.

For decades now, law making and adjudication have been reduced to political posturing from both sides of the aisle. With no concern toward the actually ability to implement or enforce anything. 

Commentators have only muddled the issue by refusing to provide context of any kind. Or worse, by taking partisan positions.

This author hopes to provide context: legal, factual and historical, so that a reader may make up his own mind.

Historical amnesia is arguably, a  country’s greatest sin. It allows us to forget the context and content of our times. More importantly, it allows us, to not only repeat history, but to compound our mistakes with abandon.

To understand the judgment in the case of Abhiram Singh V/s C.D.Commachen  (available here  and here) , one has to understand the case itself and retrace its origins.

1989

It is late 1989. India has just been introduced to the word Shilanyas. A saffron tide sweeps the country. In an article titled Communalism: Dangerous dimensions India Today quotes Ashok Singhal’s interview, “You will soon see within this country a vertical divide within each political party – those who accept Hindu nationalism and those who don’t.”

Embed from Getty Images

Pujas are being held to consecrate brick in all villages with populations above 2000.  to culminate on November 9, 1989 at Ayodhya. Tens of thousands of people head towards the town despite bans, curfews, police bandobast, fiery speeches and riots.

There are riots in U.P., Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan that year.  Even hitherto untouched towns like Kota, Badaun, Sasaram (Bihar) and Mhow are effected

A total of 336 are killed between January and September.

This is the year India is introduced to The VHP, an organisation of holy men and sants that was yet a guerrilla force of social movements. It appeared to liaise between the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

After November 9, 1989. India Today’s Pankaj Pachauri describes the Shilanyas thus in his story Communal Time Bomb :

A mere hole in the ground, 7-ft long, 7-ft wide and 7-ft deep, may become the graveyard of communal harmony.

Shekhar Gupta in his story Communal Card says:

 “It was an unusual victory celebration. As thousands streamed into the sanctum sanctorum of the curiously-shaped shrine, their heads bowed in reverence and eyes glazed by extreme religious fervour, the slogans they shouted were not just to extol the gods.

It doesn’t look like this was going to stop at Ayodhya either. Shekhar Gupta says:

Take for instance, the favourite one: “Yeh to kewal jhanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baaki hai” (This is just the beginning, we still have to sort out Kashi and Mathura). And “Tel laga ke Dabur ka, naam mita do Babur ka“(Rub Dabur oil, wipe out Babur’s name).

Here’s another slogan from the  story quoted above:

Jis Hindu ka khoon na khaule, khoon nahin vo pani hai; Janmabhoomi ke kaam na aye, vo bekaar jawanee hai (That Hindu whose blood does not boil has water in his veins, youth that does not serve Ram Janmabhoomi is youth lived in vain).

In the 1989 general assembly polls a month later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grows from 2 MPs in the Lok Sabha to 85 MPs. Mission Accomplished.

In the 9th Lok Sabha, the Congress loses power to the National Front – an unusual grouping of the socialist Janata Dal, the BJP on the extreme right and the CPI(M) on the left.

The Assembly Elections and 1990

It’s 3 months later, March 1990.

The BJP- Shiv Sena alliance wins 98 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly elections against the Congress’ 141 and the Janata Dal’s 24. Alarm bells begin to ring.

The 9th Lok Sabha has introduced historically extreme elements and gets off to an inauspicious start. As India Today’s David Devadas, notes at the time:

 “The unprecedented array of religious zealots in the House is likely to keep the Speaker constantly on edge.”

Devadas adds, rather prophetically:

And if the heat and dust of the last House was generated largely by sensational newspaper revelations, the members of this one are likely to throw up fundamental issues that could strain the sinews of the Constitution itself.”

Made insecure by Vice President Devi Lal’s hugely successful Kisan Rally, then prime minister V.P. Singh decides to strain those sinews further. On August 7th he announces the implementation of the The Mandal Commission Report that would increase reservations in all jobs to above 50%.

In the extremely limited job market of the pre-liberalisation era, the student community burst into anger. India Today echoes popular sentiment, calling it Dividing to Rule.

It was a decision that will live forever in infamy and become the benchmark of the descent of Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh from leader to demagogue,

writes Inderjit Bhardwar in India Today.

Kids throughout the country started setting themselves on fire in protest, but Singh remained adamant.

Determined to rally the Other Backward Castes (OBC) vote, as an antidote to BJP’s upper caste Hindu base, he stood firm:

I wish to make it clear,”  he says,  “that should a situation arise in which I have to choose between a cause that I believe in so intensely, and my chair, I will not hesitate for an instant to choose the former.”

Not to be left behind, then BJP President L.K. Advani, ups the ante.

Known as The Saffron Seer,  he retaliates with announcing a rath yatra that would begin from Somnath and end at Ayodhya on October 30th where it would start building a Ram temple.

Advani’s air conditioned van comes to be known as The Chariot of Fire  as it leaves hundreds dead in its wake. ( Read, Anger and Anguish, Over 200 dead in Hyderabad) .

1990 ends with the chariot being stopped by Mulayam Singh Yadav at Samistapur and  the fall of the V.P.Singh government. A year later, Rajiv Gandhi would be dead and two years later, Babri Majid would fall.

The December Petition

As 1990 ends, someone in the Congress finally wakes up to ‘The Hindutva Problem.’ There are other petitions pending too and being heard. But this one will make it to the constitution bench.

Of all the gin joints in all the worlds….they say.

Was it about Commachen or was it that Abhiram Singh was the BJP Bombay Unit vice president? No one knows. But Commanchen slipped in an election petition (No 11. Of 1991) on the last possible date saying Singh and the BJP had sought votes on religious grounds.

In a December 24th Judgement, the Bombay high court, upholds Commachen’s plea saying:

prima facie, it does appear that the leaders have appealed for votes for the Hindu candidates of the two parties on the basis of their religion and community. Prima facie, it does appear that the leaders did attempt to create enmity and hatred between different classes of citizen on the grounds of community and religion.”

It adds:

 “it is clear from the voluminous material on record that the campaign was on the basis of appealing for votes on the basis of 1st Respondent’s community and religion, i.e., the Hindu community and religion and that there was an attempt to create enmity and hatred between different classes of citizens on the basis of religion, community and caste particularly between the Hindus and Muslims.

It is important to note that

(a) the judge made a record of the voluminous amounts of evidence

(b) the judged noted that Abhiram Singh had asked for votes by “creating enmity and hatred between different classes of citizens on the grounds of community and religion.” (hate speech)

(c) the judge made no difference between Hinduism and Hindutva and saw no reason to do so.

In subsequent judgements there is no mention of the evidence. In fact, in the appeal to this decision, Justice Ramaswamy of the Supreme Court while kicking the decision upstairs to a 5-Judge bench, remarks that the original judge should have put the evidence on record.

Yet, these voluminous materials included newspaper reports from the time, police jottings and tape recordings at public meetings. While the exact court submissions are not available to the public anymore thanks to the slow digitisation; some of the interviews and speeches given at the time are still available online. Read

This Will Remain Saffron Hindustan – Bal Thackeray

There Will be Bloodshed — K.C. Sudershan

A YouTube video channel that keeps a record of speeches by Shiv Sena chief the late Balasaheb Thackeray, still has this speech up from August of 1989. It comes with English subtitles. Here’s a sample:

Pointing to the Father of the Indian Constitution  B.R.Ambedkar’s Book Riddles in Hinduism, he says:

It insults our religion. We won’t be tolerant. Tolerance is over, burnt. If anyone stands against Hinduism, we’ll burn them to ashes.”

What kind of men are these that don’t care for their own blood or lineage? That is why my blood, and the blood of all Hindus, boils. Make me Prime Minister for a day, just one day. In one day, I’ll solve the problem of Punjab and Kashmir. In one day. It’s easy. Wherever you’ve come from, make sure all your relatives and friends case their vote. We won’t rest until we’ve ensured this victory.”

Slogan Shouter in the Background – Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai (Say with pride, “We are Hindus)

Crowd repeats after him.

Slogan shouter repeats – Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai

Crowd repeats after him, this time louder.

If peace and security cannot be guaranteed, I’ll arm every Shiv Sena man with a sten-gun. I’ll get them where I can, and won’t rest till I face the enemy. And If the country and Hindutva (caption says Hinduism) were to be destroyed, no one except men like you would come to the rescue.

So Hindutva (sub title says Hinduism) is creating men.“

(Thackeray continued to remain boldly frank about his later activities as he publicly boasted in a program called Aap Ki Adalat run by journalist Rajat Sharma of ITV. Watch here.) Watch from 7m28 seconds

In fact, a whole lot of the evidence was also presented in an ongoing petition in the court of Justice J.S.Verma who put it on record.

The Old Hindutva Judgement and Justice Verma

Meanwhile, Justice J.S.Verma of the Supreme Court was already listening to an appeal against Bombay High Court Justice Variava’s decision to set aside Manohar Joshi’s election in petition (No 24 of 1990). Ram Jethmalani was the advocate on Record for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.

In the Manohar Joshi v/s Nitin Bhaurao Patil judgement, among other things, Justice Verma admitted the following into record  as Justice Variava’s observations:

“Para 17

(a) To handle the Congress-I hoodlums the Shiv Sainiks may take law in their hands and use firearms if necessary (Thackeray).

(b) To save `Hindutva’ vote for BJP-sena Nominees (Pramod Mahajan, BJP- MP).

(d) …..If in Maharashtra the flame of Hinduism is extinguished, then anti-national Muslims will be powerful and they will convert Hindustan into Pakistan. If the flame of Hindutva will grow then in that flame the anti- national Muslims will be reduced to ashes (Pramod Mahajan).

(f) Rajiv Gandhi speaking on Hindutva is like a prostitute lecturing on fidelity. The country is again heading for partition. It is, therefore, necessary that in these circumstances and to keep the flame of Hindutva aline, the alliance of BJP-Shiv Sena should be elected (Mahajan).

  1. The petitioner states that the proceedings of the said meeting were tape-recorded and taken down in shorthand by the police authorities. The petitioner craves leave to refer to and rely upon the said tape-recorded speeches and the speeches taken down in shorthand by the police authorities.”

“30. ……… the respondent himself in his capacity as a candidate from the said constituency as well as a leader of the said alliance made appeals which offends the provisions of the said Act, For e.g. in the meeting held on 24.2.1990 at Shivaji Park, the respondent stated the first Hindu State will be established in Maharashtra . ….. Some of the meetings were reported in newspapers. The petitioner states that such meetings were held at Khaddke Building, Dadar on 21.2.1990, Prabhadevi on 16.2.1990, at Kumbharwada on 18.2.1990, and Khed Galli on 19.2.1990.

  1. In fact the speakers went on to say that on the respondent being elected and on the said alliance establishing a Hindu Government, we will give jobs to all Hindus.

The petitioner craves leave to refer to and rely upon the election diaries maintained by the local police stations, the speeches recorded by the Special Branch-I on audio cassettes, video cassettes and the speeches recorded in Marathi shorthand. The petitioner also craves leave to refer to and rely upon the press reports of the said meetings.

  1. The petitioner states that in addition to holding public meetings, the said alliance had also taken out video cassettes and audio cassettes. The video cassettes were titled “Challenge & Appeal “Shiv Sena” and the other called “Ajinkya“.

Not only the other religions are ridiculed but the followers thereof are termed as “traitors” and “betrayers”. Under the guise of protecting Hindu religion/Hindutva the said cassettes attach other religions and whips up lowered instincts and animosities.

The concept of secular democracy is totally eliminated.

The petitioner also craves leave to refer to and rely upon the said video cassettes as and when produced.”

Justice Verma, while admitting all of this on record, however took three positions.

  1. The free speech position for third party workers: Third parties (that is various party workers) who hire vehicles, say things on behalf of for the candidate and pay for posters, pandals etc., are exercising their free speech when they do so. So Joshi’s election cannot be put aside on the basis of what others did.
  2. The consent position of candidate viz senior party leaders: Justice Verma held that the candidate was not in a position to give consent to senior party leaders mentioned above (like Thackeray, Mahajan and etc) when they came to give speeches for his election. To quote : Whenever the requirement is of consent, it must be free consent given by the giver of the consent, of his own volition. Ordinarily, it also implies a subservient role of the person to whom consent is given and the authority of the giver of the consent to control the actions of the agent. It is difficult to ascribe to an acknowledged leader of the party a role subservient to the candidate set up by that party inasmuch as the candidate is ordinarily in no position to control the actions of his leader.”

[This was clearly fallacious reasoning. Ashok Desai, the petitioner’s attorney had argued on record, that Joshi, when choosing to be a member of either party, had accepted the ideology of the said party which was laid out by the leaders and as such, consent was implicit. ]

  1. The Hindutva position: “It cannot be held that in the abstract the mere word “Hindutva” by itself invariably must mean Hindu religion. (Also already indicated in the connected matters – Civil Appeal No. 2835 of 1989 – Bal Thackeray vs Prabhakar K. Kunte & Ors. – with Civil Appeal NO. 2836 of 1989)

YET, J.S. Verma said, one valid charge remained from Para 30:  that “the respondent stated the first Hindu State will be established in Maharashtra”

He however dismissed this charge on the basis of lack of evidence since all witnesses, he said,  were official witnesses.  That was 1995.

In 1996, his brother in silk, Justice Ramaswamy in his judgement on the Abhiram Singh case just decided to kick it upstairs saying:  “Thus, without expressing any opinion on these questions, we are of the view that the entire case requires to be heard and decided by a large Bench of five Judges since the decision thereon upon the purity of election process and requires to be decided authoritatively.”

All about ‘him’

This apparently authoritative decision came by a 4:3 division and three different opinions on January 2, 2017. A full 27 years later. The seven honourable judges of a constitution bench chose to address the substantive question of  semantics. Yes, semantics.

Section 123(3), pared down to its essentials and stripped of legalese says:

the appeal by a candidate… to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion…”  is a corrupt electoral practice.

The substantive question they argued about was – whose religion did the term his religion refer to in the act? Does it refer to the candidates’ religion or the voters?

This matter had actually already been decided in the  Ramesh Yashwant Prabhoo case. In fact, a whole lot more had been decided by Justice Jagdish Saran Varma in that case, that no one had bothered to visit, including  Justices Ramaswamy and J.S.Varma.

Since a constitution bench is allowed to revisit these questions, they did, and took different views.

Justice Madan Lokur writing for himself and Justice Nagreswar Rao agreed his religion meant candidates’ religion, but took the approach of ‘purposive and social context adjudication.’ That is, law interpretation must adjust to lack of proper framing by the original framers and to changing times.

Justice Bobde agreed with Justice Lokur and took the position that courts should reject “strict construction” of the “language of the law” when it is obviously in violation of the plain intention of the legislature.

Justice Thakhur agreed with Justice Chokar but went further. Drawing from Justice Jeevan Reddy’s argument in the S.R.Bommi V/s Union of India case, he argued that in preserving the basic structure, “the constitution requires the state to be secular in thought and action.” Most importantly, “the same requirement attaches to political parties as well.”

Justice Thakur’s position was stated thus: “Extending the  above  principle  further one  can  say  that  if  two constructions  of  a  statute  were  possible,   one   that   promotes   the constitutional objective ought to be preferred over the other that does  not do so.”

Extending which argument, standing for election would validly be a statutory right, not a fundamental right.

Justice Chandrachud, writing for the dissent,  took the position that revoking someone’s rights as a candidate or banning someone from the electoral role was a substantive penalization. And therefore, standard of proof should be higher and no liberties should be taken in interpreting a law that imposes such a high penalty.

As such, the word “his” must semantically, just refer to the candidates’ religion.

[In a side note, it is interesting that the standard of proof in criminal defamation cases is actually lower, the chilling effect on freedom of speech higher,  but no one has yet sought to refer that matter to a constitution bench]

Free Speech, Hate Speech, Threat to Life and Basic Structure of the Constitution

If three decades of Judicial thought went into that judgement, may god save us all.

No one is the wiser about the issues at stake here. The waters are muddier than before. And given the wide array of commentary on the judgement, it has been anything but authoritative.

In this context, let’s examine what is NOT at stake here.

1. Is this about Hinduism and Hindutva?

The answer is resoundingly – NO. It isn’t. Article 123(3) and 123(3A) are clear. In as much as they talk of religion at all, they talk of all religions. The various diversions into Hinduism and Hindutva by various benches; the attempt to define one, either or both as “ways of life,” were completely irrelevant to the entire discussion. The attempt by petitioners, respondents and judges to make them sound similar or dissimilar was completely out of context and plainly disingenuous. Copious amounts of evidence has been put on record, showing candidates speaking of religion. What that religion was called was entirely immaterial to the matter at hand.

Especially since the section itself includes a wide phrase called “community” – any community that can prove to be divisive.

2. Is it about whose religion is being spoken of? Was the “his” important?

Again– No. Indian parliamentarians are notorious for their lack of reverence for the English language. This is an empirical, historical and ongoing fact. Not only is English their non-native language, they are hardly subject matter experts in either linguistics or semantics. To base the outcome of the very nature of a democracy, on the ignorance of a clerk’s knowledge of pronouns, is intemperate in the least, farcical if one must be moderate. Justice Thakur is right when he says that if one interpretation leads towards a constitutional outcome and another toward an unconstitutional one – the constitutional road is the obvious one to take.

3. Was it ever an issue of consent of the candidate?

No. This is about elections, not rape. Silence does mean consent. Indeed it is more than silence. When a candidate chooses to stand from a political party with a manifesto, common propaganda material and common public leaders with public pronouncements, he is voluntarily and avowedly stating he believes in that party’s cause. Consent does not have to be proven, it is manifest in his choice of party.

4. Was it ever an issue of insufficient proof?

No. The proof was always available. It continues to be available to this day (see links in story) Shiv Sena speeches and its own propaganda material stated in as many words that it promised a Hindu Rashtra. They did not deny it court and it is, indeed, part of court record in some cases. For advocates and respondents to demand “a higher level of proof” is ludicrous, to say the least.

So what is at stake. What are the honest issues that have been addressed in election petitions over the years, but never really been fully confronted by a full constitutional bench for a decisive, definitive answer:

5. So was the election petition pointless and wrong?

No. There was a point to the Election Petition. In fact, it should probably have been filed earlier, against all Shiv Sena and BJP candidates,  and also under different sections of the law like IPC Sections 153 and 153(A) . In fact, one has to revisit the entire basis on which some political parties appeal to the electorate.

The key questions

The Key questions that a constitution bench should have addressed and put to rest where the following:

  1. Does Section 123(A) violate freedom of expression?
  2. Is standing for elections a fundamental right or a statutory right?
  3. If Section 123 (A) is fully implemented, what does it really mean for other political parties?
  4. Can you really ban hate speech?
  5. How fundamental are our fundamental rights?

These have been addressed by various benches at various times, but never been fully put to rest. In the next instalment, this writer hopes to address some aspects of these.

EOM.

Sarita Rani

NOW, IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT

What a glorious failure of imagination this has been.  What a glorious victory of the brute and the bold. When little men with lots of power have looked at the world, said:  “I want this or that,” and proceeded to devour, demolish, degrade and despoil what they desired, with nary a discourse.

Desire. What years of growing desire these have been. It has been sold to us as a virtue in itself.

At best, to desire is to work hard to attain your desires. To work hard, is to be a good citizen. Indeed, a good, moral and righteous human being above all.

The more you desire, the more righteous you are – billboards tell us this every two meters on our way to work and school.

But what should be one’s object of desire? It matters, does it not?

Is the proper object of our desire, aiming to understand the works of a Hugo, a Zola, a Premchand? Or is it sufficient that our desire stop at a Mercedez Benz?

A Mercedes of course. Of what practical use is fiction, except to pass the time?

Should we aim to grasp Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Aristotle’s Poetics, and  Ambedkar’s Annhilation? Or is owning an iPhone enough?

The iPhone by far. We are already free, aren’t we? Of what use is Common Sense in a free millennium? And if Annhilation is available free, is it worth anything?

After all, isn’t price a measure of value?  Isn’t how much you earn a measure of how much you’re worth? Isn’t that Capitalism 101?

At worst, desire is lust. Not passion, no. For passion requires a continuing commitment to values, at a time when the idea of value itself has been redefined.

Passion requires an ability to act against the tide, at a time when we feel safer in numbers.

Passion requires the mind, while desire will make do with the groin.

Billboard journalism has not learnt to distinguish between a degree and an education; between education and knowledge; between wealth and prosperity, power and authority or even, money and value.

Those who’ve sold us desire between soap operas and prime-time news, have forgotten the meaning of value.

The fact is, money is only as valuable as the things it buys. And it’s time to ask – what is money buying us today?

Choice. These have been the decades of choice. From four soaps to 20. From one school to five schools. From two doctors in two hospitals to 5 doctors in 15 hospitals.

We doctor shop, teacher shop, school shop, husband shop. We can idea shop on Facebook. Kya achcha idea hai sir ji. Today one idea, tomorrow, another. These are good choices to have. Even great choices. Freedom requires the freedom to choose.

And if we can choose from 140 varieties of cheese, does it truly matter that beef is branded sacred and untouchable?  If we can choose from 110 television channels and soap operas, does it matter that free speech is banned?

And if one billion people can roam the streets free, does it matter that a few thousand are branded seditionists, separatists and unfits?

With this great benediction of individual autarkies upon us, does it really matter that some get left out?

Questions. These have been the years of questions.

Development or Freedom? Security or Privacy? Education Or Right to Dissent? A peaceful, homogeneous society or Freedom of Conscience?

These are not trivial questions. They face us today as they faced the constitution makers 60 years ago.

But every generation or so, these questions must be asked and answered. Not in hidden rhetoric and mis-targeted animosities. But straight out.

  • You may have 5 star-rated refrigerators and online clothes shopping. But some people will disappear in the night, never to return. Where is Najeeb?
  • Neighboring countries won’t come marching onto your streets. But you might hear a knock on your neighbor’s door one night. He will never been seen again. Prisoners may disappear from prisons, people from their homes. But no one may ask how.
  • Your kids may go to college, but you may not question us about what they learn, how we treat them, or if some students kills themselves or each other. They must carry on. Education for millions must proceed unhampered.
  • You may be showered with government largess. But your money may be declared illegal any day. Your savings may be replaced. Or not. But you must stay calm. Dissent is manufactured. So is aakrosh (angst). What people manufacture is unreal. Only the government is real.

In fact, the only real thing is Calm and Peace .

Peace. These have been the decades of peace. Islands of violence have not bothered us.

Gujarat 2002. Muzaffarabad. Una. Chattisgarh. Manipur. Hyderbad Central University. Orissa. JNU. 60,000 farmer suicides.

We are each, a continent unto ourselves, vying to be a nation united. These islands are pinpricks, irritatingly floating into our consciousness, easily dismissed. They interfere with our idea of ourselves and must be discarded from the larger narrative.

We barter our individual consciences, piece by piece, for the greater good.

The greater good.  But hasn’t it always been about the greater good? The needs of the many over the few? Of the majority over the minority? Of the many over the one.

We’ve heard that for centuries now, not just years.

On the right, the Utilitarians have told us “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong.”

On the left, we’ve heard: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

We’ve never been told: Who is to measure this happiness? Who shall be the judge of it? The Judge of us? Who shall measure, how much of our ability we are to sacrifice for an un-measurable greater good? Whose need are we to sacrifice for? How much are we to sacrifice? For how long?

Would we rather pay for the education of a bright young kid next door? Or a bureaucrat’s salary? For a park in the local community, or A15s? For Japanese Encephalitis vaccinations, or a political party’s election coffers?

As worlds became freer, these were supposed to be our choices to make.

Yet, today, these choices hardly seem to exist. These questions are forbidden. Irrelevant. Unasked.

Perhaps even, forgotten.

One of the most telling remarks in the recent demonetization episode was, Narendra Modi surrogates saying:  the communists should be happy with the move. Modi had fulfilled Marx’s dream of a cashless society. A few days later they went further: Finance Minster Arun Jaitley likened the move to Mao’s cultural revolution. Gold is now rationed. Married women get 500 grams, unmarried-250 gms, men – 100 gms.

New Age, right wing apparatchiks are now to monitor gold; gram for gram, marriage for marriage.

The left and the right have merged. Marx, Mao and Modi look all alike. A dream turned into reality, looks too much like a nightmare.

Nightmares. These have been the years of nightmares. Burnings, lynching, constitutional anarchies. The supreme court passes a judgment legislating compulsory patriotism. In response to an appeal,  the court mandated that all cinema theatres must compulsorily play the national anthem before all screenings. “Time has come for people to realize that the national anthem is a symbol of CONSTITUTIONAL PATRIOTISM…” These are the exact words of a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra.

Yet, when another appeal was immediately filed, asking that the anthem also be played in the court, a bench declined to hear the plea. Seeming to say:“Let’s not stretch it too far.”

Constitutional patriotism it seems, must stop at the door of the protectors of the constitution.

The nightmares have only just begun. But the choice now is to decide whether to remain asleep, or wake up and embrace daylight.

The comfort of nightmares is, that you can pretend you are not an actor in the play, just a spectator. However bad the nightmares are, we can safely say: but what can we do?

The problem with daylight is we have participate in our own lives, however little that part might be. It might just be to wake up, breathe the air, shake our fist at the those who sold us rotten dreams, and tackle the day, one day at a time.

Or it might be more.

Both Thomas Jefferson and B.R. Ambedkar believed that subsequent generations are not required to bear the burdens of their predecessors’ choices. That every few generations at least, a people are required to ask some fundamental questions, answer them, and make their own choices. Perhaps even, make their own mistakes. The burden of history can start afresh. The idea of India was once defined for us in 1947.

Perhaps it is time to redefine it now.

EOM

Sarita Rani

Freedom Series 1 – An Uncommon Sense

http://wp.me/p7JQ3S-IC

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes us POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security.

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered; and the easier repaired when disordered.

modi-pm-announcement

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT… our calamity is heightened by reflecting that WE furnish the means by which we suffer.

Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficient brought to their doors to make THEM feel the precariousness with which all (Indian) property is possessed.

Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of (Politicians in power) and still, hoping for the best, are apt to call out, “COME, COME, WE SHALL BE FRIENDS AGAIN, FOR ALL THIS.” But examine the passions and feelings of mankind, Bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me, whether you can hereafter love, honour, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? Your future connection with (your politicians), whom you can neither love nor honour will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first.

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face! Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor! If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have.

This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers, that we may pursue determinately some fixed object.

But if you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose, that this (country) can longer remain subject to any external power.

And a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all, and in that case we pay our money for nothing;

“The science” says … “of the politician consists in fixing the true point of happiness and freedom. Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages, who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness, with the least national expense.”For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other.

Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others the most improper to defend us.

The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a Spaniel. Youth is the seed time of good habits, as well in nations as in individuals.

Immediate necessity makes many things convenient, which if continued would grow into oppressions. Expedience and right are different things.

Here is idolatry even without a mask: And he who can calmly hear, and digest such doctrine, hath forfeited his claim to rationality an apostate from the order of manhood; and ought to be considered as one, who hath not only given up the proper dignity of man, but sunk himself beneath the rank of animals, and contemptibly crawl through the world like a worm.

In short, Independence is the only BOND that can tye and keep us together. We shall then see our object, and our ears will be legally shut against the schemes of an intriguing, as well, as a cruel enemy.

POST SCRIPT

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her— Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

SOURCE: Excerpts from – Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Waxkeep Publishing, Kindle Edition

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

1-4 Paine, Thomas (p. 3)
5 Paine, Thomas. pp. (16-17)
6-10 Paine, Thomas.(p. 23)
11- Paine, Thomas (p. 24)
12 – Paine, Thomas  (p. 28)
13-14 – Paine, Thomas (p. 30)
15 – Paine, Thomas (p. 36)
16 – Paine, Thomas (p. 38)
17 – Paine, Thomas (p. 40)
18 – Paine, Thomas (p. 44)
19 – Paine, Thomas (p. 49)

POSTCRIPT

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense (p. 36)

NOTE: Words in Paragraphs changed from original

About Thomas Paine

Freedom, Flag and the Four Estates

There is a little known tradition in the U.S.military, of flying the flag upside down. It’s an officially recognized signal of distress.

Title 4, chapter 1 (8a), of the U.S flag code states: the flag should “never be flown upside down except as a signal of dire distress, in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

As we prepare to greet our 70th Independence day tomorrow, I am strangely reluctant to celebrate. Not because I feel any less Indian or any less Independent as a human being. But because I am deeply aware of how curtailed our common rights have become. How much on the brink we stand, as a country of the unfree.

Do we really qualify as a nation in dire distress? In extreme danger to life or property?

 

flag-001

I think each man and women should answer these questions for themselves. How much is too much? When is it enough? Is this our tryst with destiny and are we okay with it?

Democracy and Freedom are not thought experiments. We are not free because we tell ourselves so, once every year. A free and independent nation is a living, breathing thing that one experiences daily.

Elevator Music

It is pointless to recall every demeaning national experience and slights to sanity, over the last two years.

Not merely because it will take too long, but because this government has come to treat the media and all intellectual activity like Gregorian chants on Elevator Music.

A Mildly irritating, two-minute  background hum that one can shout over. And easily forget as soon as one gets off the damn thing. 

But in Gregorian chant mode one can quickly run through some of the main highlights of our political experience since the BJP government came to power:

  • dissenting Facebook account holders put in jail
  • sedition charges filed against university students from Jawaharlal University and others
  • multiple journalists in Chhattisgarh jailed
  • dalit student leader Rohit Vemula driven to suicide by an uncaring HCU vice chancellor
  • Hyderabad Central University barricaded, put under siege
  • criminal defamation used as a means of throttling dissent
  • inter-faith couples targeted by Love Jihad activists
  • violence against people who refuse to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai #BMKJ
  • Muslim man Akhlaq lynched to death on the suspicion of storing beef
  • Multiple alleged Beef Eaters, Cow transporters lynched, hanged, burnt -most of whom happen to be Dalit
  • And last but not the least, Kashmir reignited. Protesters shot in the eye with high velocity pellets with the intent of blinding them. (After much research, we are told)

This is not to mention

  • Rs 20,000 crores sunk in the K.G. basin for gas not found
  • 1500 farmers left to commit suicide and suffer untold losses (really, we’re not being told ).
  • Yet, Rs 670,000 crores of depositor’s money lent to big corporate defaulters by banks. Some of it twice, despite foreknowledge that they were defaulters. Rs 500,000 crores is now being written off.
  • one of them — Vijay Mallya – allowed to fly out of the country at the last minute.
  • that was the second millionaire thief runaway, after home minister Sushma Swaraj helped UK chum, Lalit Modi  get permission to fly around Europe
  • and to allow all of this and more to happen India’s most promising RBI Governor was let go for promising to clean up the banks in a comprehensive AQR (Asset Quality Review).
  • now the government is coming after small depositors to ‘widen the tax base.’

Really, just don’t mention the last few  at all. It’s not a big deal. Only Rs 670,000 crores, a few cronies and our tax money.

Because seriously, the reason I don’t feel like celebrating is that this government and its prime minister, in addition to not doing all the things above, have also, skillfully, not done other things as well.

The Four Estates and a Thumb

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Modi and his government have refused to engage with the media officially. We know that.

They come out of their quarters in carefully staged outings, to float carefully managed tropés and return to whichever hole they live in.

The party line is that they are busy going about ‘their business’ as good executives should, and the media is just a painful annoyance.

Given the state of Indian television I’m inclined to sympathize with them.But really, Television isn’t the only media.

And you have to remember, this too-busy-to-talk, is a new party line. Adopted after former Education Minister Smriti Irani’s spectacular combustion against JNU student protests, backfired.

What no one’s pointing out is, Irani exploded on Rajya Sabha TV, Lok Sabha TV and Twitter. Not in front of the media. And even before her operatic performance, there was always a  Modi policy of not engaging with the media every since the Gujarat 2002 riots and the Karan Thapar non-interview.

Blanking out media is a major problem. This should be apparent to anyone with experience in a democracy.

The media is called the Fourth Estate for a reason.  The job of a responsible Press is to be the conscience keeper of a nation. To question and challenge the government on behalf of the people. To ensure and insist the government engages in a dia-logue instead of a mono-logue; that those in power speak with the public instead of at them.

 

Just saying No

But, this government likes saying No. It doesn’t care that Prime Minister Modi himself spent way too much time outside the country last year,  without commensurate foreign policy gains.

On the contrary, the United States, which had once barred him from entering the country as chief minister in 2005, then shamelessly courted him back in 2014, is now once again unhappy with his domestic intolerance regime(n). China has put hurdles on India’s entry into the NSG (and yes, procedural hurdles are how you do it). And ties with Pakistan are at an all time low, Seriously, how does one mess up ties with Russia?

As for the long list of little countries that BJP spokesmen like to trot out to pad the margins – we know they pad the margins, the expense sheet, and little else. Nepal is a good example.

If that were not enough, legislators complained last week that the prime minister rarely deigns to attend Parliament. First Post called it PM-Mukt Parliament (PM-free Parliament as in pest-free homes).

On August 10 this year, he didn’t turn up in Parliament for a constitution amendment bill, a first ever in history. The bill had already been discussed threadbare for months in his absence and he just had to turn up and show his face. But, this is Just Say No Modi.

The same day, on August 10, Supreme Court Chief Justice TS Thakur lashed out against the government for not clearing the names of 75 judges, whose names were passed on to the executive by the collegium. It was the final straw in a series of snubs that the executive has been handing out to the judiciary over the last six months.

This April, a frustrated Chief Justice Thakur broke into tears on network television as the nation watched in horror. A sobbing chief justice has to be some kind of a first too.

After a long tussle with the government on the Collegium system versus a government appointed Judicial Commission, the victorious  Supreme court had found itself thwarted on all appointments and blamed for all backlogs.  ‘All I need is for you to fill judicial appointments’, he begged Modi who was sitting on the same dais.

Modi had no option but to promise him a quick resolution. Justice Thakur, hoped his own public humiliation might indeed ensure a solution. But four months later the wall remains stubbornly stony. The justice system log-jammed.

Last week, Justice Thakur lost his patience and threatened to “pass orders”. The idea of a face-off between the Supreme court and the Prime Minister’s office does not bode well. South Asia has a bad history of such events (India in 1977 and Pakistan more recently).

This ticks off the third and final arm of a democracy that Modi has shown complete disdain for. He has shown that he will not engage with the media, because he dislikes dialogue.

He does not attend parliament often enough. Despite a national outcry, he tried to pass the Land Bill as a national ordinance and then withdrew it. He passed a constitution amendment bill in absentia,  the Aadhar Universal ID bill was passed as money a bills thus holding the Legislature at gunpoint.

And now he thumbs his nose at the Judiciary. A chief justice cries and Modi doesn’t give a damn.

Raja aur Praja

This behoves the question : What problem does PM Modi have with all branches of a functioning democracy? Who is this man we have elected?

Is he the Raja answerable only to his Praja, as a King to his people? Because the only kind of gathering Modi will address is a public gathering or rally.

Is he a King who will meet only his Courtiers and no one else.

Is he at best, a chief executive answerable only to his board of directors — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)?

Look at the landscape — roving lynchers, a throttled press, suicidal farmers, besieged universities, killed rationalists and writers, and finally, sidelined democratic institutions.

Is this his Idea of India?

If it is, we need to stop participating in it.

This was not the founding fathers’ Idea of India. We the People, fought for an independent nation, one half and a score centuries ago.

India’s tryst with destiny cannot and does not mean this.

In the name of a nation that was once free but is not today, I will not be celebrating this Independence day.

In my mind, the flag flies upside down. A sign of dire distress.

Each of us must decide when to say enough is enough. But all of us have to remember only this — no help is coming from outside. If we want to fly the flag straight again, we have to help ourselves.

In memory of August 15, 2016. India’s 70th Independence Day

For my father,
Late, Col S.P. Singh V.S.M.

 

Short link : http://wp.me/p7JQ3S-qz

The Origin story of the Civilized World

In the beginning, there was the Word…

A writer’s bible would probably begin like that. A democrat’s bible should definitely begin like that.

The meaning and context of words ought not to be the eclectic obsession of writers, jurists and sundry, crazy, logophiles.

The reason is simple yet seminal. Just as farming was the beginning of human settlement, communication was the beginning of human civilization.

words

Our unique ability to form complex word combinations is what turned us from man to tribe. And thereafter, from tribe to society, culture, nations and civilizations.

Think about it. The journey from drawing cave paintings to being able to say Thatis a Tableis how we went from passive observation to abstract concept formation.

The power to articulate: “I have a dream” was  the unearthing of consciousness, of the self, ego and identity. The depth of thought and abstraction those words encompass are still under discussion by academics and experts.

Eons later those words  would lead to other words – freedom, parity, equality and yes, even aggression, ‘movements’ and civil disobedience. These are powerful words with the ability to affect even more powerful change in the world around them.

The discovery of the phrase:  You are wrong: was the discovery of morality. The retort:  How do you know? was the breakthrough to epistemology and metaphysics. Another answer in another context:“Because apples always fall down” was the discovery of universal laws of nature. The key to it, was understanding the word always.

Whichever way you look at it, the difference between man and chimpanzee is not merely the opposable thumb. It’s that we don’t grunt out differential calculus and Shakespeare. We can’t.

However impolitic it is to say so, Words are the origin story of the civilized world.

Take the meaning of words away, or even blur them, and communication starts to crumble; centuries of the civilizational process start to unspool.

Mortagage

This is not a new idea. Tomes have been written about the importance of language per se as well as the politics of language. It is impossible to touch the subject and not mention Noam Chomsky’s seminal work in linguistics. It is a tragedy that his work on politics is best forgotten out of respect for the man as a linguist. Chomsky was on to something that his politics interfered with and that would ultimately damage linguistics itself.

Where the Chomsky school erred was in its political partisanship, and a lack of historicity.

It is not a coincidence that throughout history and across geographies, despots have started first and foremost with repossessing and repurposing certain words.

Nor is it a coincidence that philosophers, rationalists and democrats have sought, often in vain, to point to the incongruity of those words.

Atelier de Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire, détail (musée Carnavalet) -002

Franςois- Marie Arouet a.k.a Voltaire ( 1694-1798), said in the impetuous times preceding the French revolution: “Those who can make you believe in absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” (See full quote below)1

He was talking of the oppression of the Church and Monarch  and Voltaire was lucky to be heard in that they were both put in their rightful place in public discourse. But not before such blood was shed that the period came to be known as “The Terrors.”

Revolution 2.0

Not two centuries later, another revolution would follow the Great French revolution and it would be marked by a similar repossessing of words.

A London-based, German citizen would rouse impoverished Russian workers into revolt and then revolution. It was an absurd concatenation of geography, rivaled only by the absurd concatenation of words he would string together to make the revolution’s rallying cry.

The phrase was “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

The Prussian Economist and Hegelian philosopher was of course, Karl Marx (1818 to 1883), co-author of the Communist Manifesto. Without going into either the philosophy or politics of Marxism, it is interesting to examine the words themselves :

Dictatorship and  Proletariat2

The questions almost ask themselves– How could there ever be such a thing? How would millions of underfed, uneducated, tired  full-time working men, be all dictators at the same time?

Would they stop working and start dictator-ing? But doesn’t a dictator need dictatees or subjects, or…working men?

Would they take turns? But among millions, how would any man reasonably hope to get his turn in his lifetime?

Would they elect someone to dictate over them, instead? In which case wouldn’t it become a dictatorship of the appointee ? And was there not something bizarre in choosing or electing your own dictator?

At best, sado-masochism on a nation-wide scale. At worst, paying for the hatchet that’s to be buried in your chest and thanking the man afterward?

Let’s just say that somehow they all did became dictators at the same time, then who would they dictate to?

Let’s give the best possible answer and say –they would dictate their own lives. Wouldn’t that just be self-determination? Like Democracy? Or going the other way – Anarchy?  So why call it dictatorship? What was the specific reason for using that word combination?

Especially since dictatorship  –the absolute tyranny of one man (or many) —  was the problem to begin with.

Without taking anything away from the fact that dictatorships and landlords had to go and factory workers and farmers needed a better deal; the mind boggles at the thought that the weight of this articulation’s contradictions did not bury the idea at birth.

Serendipity

One might be tempted at this point to dismiss this as pettifogging.  After all, politics is the art of the possible and slogan making is the even more complex art of getting people to rally behind an abstract idea. To nitpick on words has sometimes been called the tyranny of the dictionary.

But words are all we have with which to communicate. Take the meaning of words away and we may as well be grunting to each other. Slogans must represent the idea in truth and the idea must represent the reality is or promised.

As one looks through history one must ask oneself the question: have slogan makers truly represented the reality they promised or were we just not listening? The answers may vary but are almost uniformly surprising.

One man who surprised himself and the world was Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903-1950). He  displayed a serendipitous understanding of word-mangling in his book 1984 Among the gems in this delightfully prophetic book are a Ministry of Peace responsible for War and a Minister of Love in charge of Law and Order. (Think of Secretary of State responsible for Foreign Relations aka Wars)

George-orwell-BBC

The book was published in 1949 just four years after the end of WWII. Orwell wrote it because he thought British democracy wouldn’t survive the war without succumbing to either Fascism or democratic socialism. It received a lukewarm response and Orwell himself later said he had been wrong in his high pessimism.2

What he and others didn’t realize at the time was  that Orwell hadn’t been wrong, merely ahead of his time.

The central theme of 1984 is best described in this single line that has come to describe the world since the 1950s:

“First they steal the words, then they steal the meaning.”

While WWII would end with the defeat of the fascists and the beginning of a new Cold War between the allies and the communists; across the Atlantic, New York’s Madison Avenue was already sharpening its teeth on How to Steal Meaning and Make Money.

Madison Avenue

One could pick on almost any big advertising campaign of that era to make the point but the most fascinating case study in this new and now legitimate art form was the De Beers Ad campaign of 1938 that would could the phrase A Diamond is forever

Forty years later, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman would make a hugely successful  eponymous movie of that name based on Ian Fleming’s book (Diamonds Are Forever); Shirley Bassey would sing a lovely, seductive title song to John Barry’s composition and diamonds would forever be associated with engagement rings and women.

In the 1930s however, De Beers was best known for its horrifying working conditions for mine workers at their African sites. Invasive cavity searches to prevent workers from smuggling out small uncuts to sell in the open market; vicious murders and violent business practices were on the company’s public relations to-deal-with-daily roster.

The 1938 ad campaign however managed to convince young lovers that since Diamonds lasted forever, it somehow meant that a diamond engagement ring would make their marriage last forever. And so a rock meant for kings and industries became a middle-class housewife’s obsession.

Never mind that in war-torn Europe and the rest of the world, thousands of young men, at that very moment, were dying alone on battlefields every day. A few months later, the U.S. would enter the war too and Americans would also begin to die. But the myth of the diamond engagement ring would remain immortal.

In fact, Madison Avenue specifically and Americans in general, would soon become so adept at repurposing words that the next great assault on meaning would come from that side of the Atlantic.

NEXT WEEK — Extraordinary Rendition of Ordinary Words

 

 

 

Footnotes

1. Voltaire – Question Sur Les Miracles

Full quote: “Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.

2Latin Proletarius (lowest class of people in Rome. Origin Proles  Mid-17th century: from Latin proletarius (from proles ‘offspring’), denoting a person having no wealth in property, who only served the state by producing  offspring. Oxford Dictionary definition  

3 Why I Write – Orwell

 

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