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Posted at: Dec 30, 2018, 1:53 AM; last updated: Dec 30, 2018, 1:53 AM (IST)YEAR OF POLARISATION: YEAREND SPECIAL

In search of a middle ground

Rajesh Ramachandran 
These are divisive times in all spheres — politics, society and belief systems. In fact, life has become one big label factory which produces names for individuals who are forced into groups — break-India gang, urban Maoist, libtard, aaptard, jihadi, sanghi, Congressi. This is only going to get worse as we move closer towards the 2019 elections

We are at the peak of sanctimonious, opinionated self-belief, looking at the deep gorges of disagreements all around us with disdain. This is the era of polarisation of politics, of ideas and belief systems. To debate is to debunk and to argue is to preclude the conversation. The other is the enemy to be murdered, at least in a TV debate. Discussions are high-decibel medieval inquisitions and the moderator is the idiot box equivalent of a murderous tormentor.  

Everybody and his argument have been labelled. In fact, life has become one big label factory which produces names for individuals who are forced into groups. Every conceivable shade of opinion has a name: break-India gang, urban Maoist, libtard, aaptard, jihadi, sanghi, Congressi. The worst are the labels that are stuck on to media outlets and practitioners: godi-media versus foreign funded-media; Hindu nationalists versus foreign nationals. And everybody is expected to paint himself into a corner of extreme opinion. What has been lost in the process is the middle ground, which is now the happy hunting ground for the supercilious masters of opinion, who give dictations on political correctness to lesser mortals.

The prime source of all this conflict is the lynch mob. They kill before they ask and they gag before they talk. The most recent and saddest victim of this gang gagging is the great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah. His is one of the greatest artistic achievements contemporary India has to show the world. But he has been reduced to his proximate identity (as Rohith Vemula lamented in his suicide note), to his mere name, to his community and a label, that of a Muslim. 

Is Naseeruddin Shah just a Muslim? And as a Muslim, whatever Naseer says is to be conceived as the utterances of a Muslim against the Hindu rashtra? Can there be a greater travesty of democracy than a citizen getting reduced to a mere label and that label being deigned inferior to certain other labels? The point of debate was the death of a police officer at the hands of a lynch mob protesting the death of a cow. Naseer asked the most natural question in this context: is the life of a cow more important than that of a man? That, too, a law-enforcing officer! But the question and the questioner were soon submerged in deafening cries of hyper-nationalism. 

The fringe elements and their sideshows could have been dismissed as ugly distractions had they not been murderous. From Mohammed Akhlaq to Pehlu Khan to Subodh Singh, the martyrs of the mob are also dead examples of the politics of polarisation. The letting loose of the Thugs of Hindostan was not a spontaneous eruption of piety for the cow and its progeny. It was a political programme meant to polarise, using some of the most deadly criminals in the society. But it did not make the difference it ought to have made in Rajasthan, the prime theatre of lynching in the name of the cow.

Why do some people assume this sense of superiority, which ends in murder? Political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, points this out as megalothymia: “Thymos is the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity; isothymia is the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people; while megalothymia is the desire to be recognised as superior... Megalothymia thrives on exceptionality: taking big risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects, because all of these lead to recognition of oneself as superior to others… To propel themselves forward, such figures (like Hitler or Peron) latched on to the resentments of ordinary people who felt that their nation or religion or way of life was being disrespected. Megalothymia and isothymia thus joined hands.” 

Ordinary people feeling resentful over perceived grievances and slights against their religion linking themselves up over the TV or social media with a superhero politician is by now a familiar theme in Indian politics. 

Now, polarisation is not the sole preserve of the political class or the cow murderers. Every debate on the social media ends before it begins, with labels being stuck and abuses exchanged. Every Facebook account holder or Twitter follower is getting into an echo chamber in which one hears only one’s own voice, amplified many times. Labels, abuses, fake news stories (again, everybody uses this and everybody calls the other’s news fake) and anything else that legitimises and justifies one’s beliefs float around the echo chamber like streamers and confetti.

This is only going to get worse as we move closer towards the 2019 elections. All that we can hope for is that at least after the polls the echo chambers will burst in the unbearable, monotonous noise they produce and we will again have a middle ground where we will again talk in the sun, argue, debate, discuss, disagree and disperse, to meet again.


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