That is Kabir’s couplet for you, translated by this columnist. Distilled from civilisational wisdom, the words of India’s 14th century saint-poet represent the more modern Voltaire-moment. But while Voltaire would unflinchingly defend a dissenter’s right to freedom of speech and expression, rather every citizen’s right to such freedom, Kabir goes beyond this. He advocates an active courting of the critic to cleanse one’s character.
These words of India’s civilisational wisdom are now lost on people who run India. Not surprising, for an intense impulse to arbitrariness, exercise of power unfettered by questions and accountability, and unease with free speech and expression has lurked within even the most altruistic of regimes. It has reared its ugly and repressive head in moments of vulnerability or vanity, as the case may be, of rulers and reactionary societal forces. It takes little time for such regimes to graduate from killing free speech and dissent to kill people who exercise these rights, to exterminate people who may potentially exercise these rights. This could be about anybody.
All this is done in stages to prevent people from making a common cause of their victimisation by belligerent regimes. This starts with people who look in some ways culturally different and who for this reason do not conform to the idea of the nation that vain and narrow regimes seek to foster.
They play on the primal suspicion of difference to characterise minorities as fifth columnists or enemies of the nation and consolidate their base among the majority community. The list of enemies keeps growing and in the end encompasses about everybody. This process was captured beautifully in Nazi Germany by the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller in a poem (First they came for the socialists/ I didn’t speak out/ For I was not a socialist…) too well known to be quoted here in full.
The struggle for freedom of speech and expression, and the right to dissent, so essential for democracy and the advancement of human civilisation, has been arduous since the European Renaissance and the American war of independence. Sometimes ardent votaries of these rights have by convoluted logic turned into their extinguishers in the name of defending them. In the last touching sequence of Wajda’s tragic 1983 French film ‘Danton’, the horror of his reign of terror that devoured his own French Revolution comes home to Robespierre. In a touching and ironic last scene, as his comrade in arms and co-leader of the Revolution, Danton is guillotined because of his machinations and on his orders, the well practiced nephew of Robespierre’s mistress lucidly recites the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. No such moment of horror and shame for our regime leaders in India, who cry themselves hoarse about their fighting the suspension of fundamental rights during the
1975-76 emergency, as they unleash lynch mobs against different lifestyle choices and freedom of expression.
In the last century, large tracts of powerful Europe and third world countries went through horrors of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Struggling for her own Independence, India’s national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Ambedkar and Sardar Patel, and public intellectuals like Tagore, were wary of such experiences. Therefore, they made non-violence and freedom of expression their articles of faith. Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru, besides their agitational activities, all brought out news and views publications and either went to jail because of them or faced bans on their publications. As poet Akbar Ilahabadi put it, ‘Jab Tope Muqabil ho Akhbar Nikaliye.’ (Bring out a newspaper to combat cannons). That’s the legacy and concept that Pt Nehru-founded National Herald has inherited.
Seen in this light, more surprising than the current regime’s ill camouflaged muzzles on dissent and free expression through contrived legal cases, denial of access to funds, blackmail and pressurising owners to get rid of inconvenient editors is the active endorsement of such a regime by large sections of the media and the people, especially the educated middle classes.
To understand this, we again have to learn from international insights. After the devastations caused by the marauding Nazis and Fascists, and staring at the endless spectre of Stalinist totalitarianism in the Eastern Bloc, two books made ripples – George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While 1984 presented a grim projection into the future of people subjugated through coercion, Brave New World, which came out in 1932 well before the aforesaid experience depicted a dystopia wherein a technologically manipulated race of humans give willing consent to their own subjugation.
Being a person well familiar with the scientific and technological advances of his time and capable of projecting their trajectory into the future, Huxley shared his more enriched insights in a few public lectures in 1962. Thirty years after Brave New World was published. This insight is what he called The Ultimate Revolution, the word Revolution used in not a utopian but a dystopian sense. The recording of one such speech at the Berkeley Language Centre in the US on March 20, 1962 is available in Berkeley’s archives.
The idea put forth therein is best encapsulated by Aldous Huxley’s own words from the lecture: ‘There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods.’
Is this what we are seeing in India today and certain other parts of the world, including the advanced West? Huxley warned against the negative use of future technologies, especially communication technologies facilitating propaganda and brainwashing. We have seen them unleashed on a devastating scale in India.
We do not know about the use of pharmacological methods in India. But in this context the alleged attempt at creation of superior humans by the RSS through its alleged Garbh Vigyan Samskara is a particular ideological imagination taking an ominous turn despite its mumbo-jumbo. You need a tech savvy imagination based on values of the Freedom Movement and the best in human civilisation to counter the sinister use of technology. This is what we will try doing in the new National Herald.