Sedimented Banalities of Protest and Gatekeeping Politics

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? (Bruno Latour, Why has Critique run out of steam?)

The ‘Not in My Name’ protest held recently across the country have generated much interest and debate. The component of the debate that is of key importance is the identification of the protesting crowd. Does this public cognize and fashion itself in a particular way? Perhaps, as a matter of habit, not so much as a matter of sincere reflection. Others, however, do recognize it as elite, savarnas, liberals, left-liberals, or more crudely, the ex-JNU crowd. The discord brings up an old problem: those making a case for, and mis-identifying themselves as, universals, come up against their worrying particularity. While they make a case for peace and harmony, brotherhood and non-violence, against the Muslims as well as Dalits, Tribals as well as the people of Kashmir and North-East, they are accused of being blinded by their Brahminical or liberal vantage points. That they don’t stand up for causes more political and less empty, where protest is not mere celebration of the status-quoist self, dwelling in its safely networked community. As David Harvey points out, politics of cosmopolitan emancipation are often undermined by the banality of geographical evils hidden underneath. Does this protesting public know the limits of its cosmos? Does it bother about the privileged standpoints that may blind it to certain axes of violence, some of which it may itself be implicated in? We have noted similar debates during the Anna movement of 2011, where most intellectuals were keen to identify the public as ‘middle-class’ while some punctured this identification by pointing to its diversity, and the multiple possibilities thus embedded in it as a core value.

At stake in this identification is the divide between populist mobilizations and radical politics. Those asking whether this protest would actually hurt Hindutva, disturb its internal design or force its reconfiguration, stress upon the protest’s (lack of) value as radical politics. They aren’t wrong, to the extent that Hindutva politics would remain entirely undisturbed. I am not sure, however, if that makes it a part of the problem. Because that depends on how we conceptualise the problem. Let us, for a moment, pitch the secular poetics of last week’s protest against the radical value of Bhim Army’s mobilization. The former makes a bid for universal values via an unidentified crowd whereas the latter makes a bid for specific political aims – even if undergirded by the same universal values – via a well-identified public. Excluding the groundwork done by Bhim Army over the years in western UP, does the protest itself enforce a setback to the Brahminism unleashed by the state? The solidarities emergent remain minor in the context of electoral manipulations to follow, where lines would be redrawn and strategic mobilisations may yet serve the majoritarian agenda of Hindutva. Apart from the tokenism of a Dalit president, I fail to see any momentum likely to penetrate further. It may be worthwhile then to wonder if we are creating a false value with a hard grip on the question of specific, already conceptualised and widely intelligible ideas of desirable ‘change’.

None of this means we should not be asking questions. It also does not mean that we fail to see that much of the critique is mounted upon decades, centuries or millennia of exploitation, humiliation and distrust. And yet, as valid as the critiques may be, political mobilisations of the future would still be forced to circulate relatively empty signifiers so as to consolidate the political. The demographic coagulations that emerge in response to negative self-references such as ‘not in my name’ would still be variously intended and very often, locked in mere traps of habit. The absence of radical content as a common-minimum shared value haunts any call to the political. It also makes a handsome subject of critique, therefore, but we must also be warned of what Latour calls our critical barbarity, which is at the heart of why, he argues, critique has run out of steam. “What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction,” Latour asks.

It is imperative that we observe the empirical substance more closely, then. At the Delhi protest, there were students, academics, social activists and journalists, joined by a more diverse bunch of enthusiasts. The slogans and their slants were well-known, and exceeded the secular poetics against the recent mob lynchings. There were performances and celebrations, in a manner of asserting solidarities and our presence as a dissenting public. Yet, it was all too familiar; worryingly so (although I concede that other less metropolitan venues may have encouraged a less ‘regular’ crowd). One would hardly take longer than a second to shift from one familiar face to another. Greetings, catching up, informal chatter – yes, on a surprisingly good weather day, it turned out to be quite a mela. At an urgent political event, the absence of genuine pathos or anger, and the generally tranquil mood of socializing could hardly be overlooked. One would imagine that the integral constitutive unit of political protest should be the encounter with a complete stranger, where the only middle-ground that unifies the two participants is drawn from the affective bouquet of mobilization. Yet, this constitutive unit was interrupted by an overbearing familiarity with the symbols, vocabularies, faces and their collective sartorial variations. It is fair to speculate that many of those in the crowd were discussing ‘other things’ as they caught up after a while. Surely, this is the problem the critics have been trying to point out?

About a year ago, this is the problem Kanhaiya Kumar turned on its head. In the clearest possible articulation of a liberal protest against the incumbent state, Kanhaiya deployed the the same practiced vocabulary of protest. The gesticulations, symbology, tonal variations and arguments that Kanhaiya mounted upon an urgent political crisis, were all too familiar to the crowd around him, but overwhelmed the world outside. It wasn’t so much what Kanhaiya said as how coherent the entire vocabulary of protest, address and celebration around him was that made it an absolute spectacle, worthy of live telecast on nearly all major news channels. The poetics of secular protest were rendered an erotic surplus in a breathtaking manner, even though we cannot discount the internal consistency of the matter, which enabled this rendering in the first place. And yet, one could legitimately argue that there was no radical substance to Kanhaiya’s speech, for its analytical bearings of Azaadi were too conservative, risk-free. Also, did it change anything, really? The familiarity and coherence across those gathered was mobilized by Kanhaiya against the wider society that would otherwise shut out any such articulations. In comparison, the Delhi event last week was a mere dress rehearsal. There was no outward projection of address in the manner of Kanhaiya. But therein lies a crucial point of interest. Moments of exceptional political relevance are never pre-determined, nor are they possible without various rehearsals. The spontaneous and historic protests mobilizing massive crowds towards a well-laid out radical horizon are a matter of political fantasy, or idealization if you please, no more.

To attend to the political everyday is to reconcile with its incompleteness, even occasional hollowness. It is to understand that politics is constituted by gradual, conservative steps, and only rarely interrupted by giant radical leaps. There is every reason for our critiques to maintain and hold to account that radical edge, but not enough to use it as a gatekeeping measure. It is important to ask why matters of secular concern draw the liberal elite out unlike the matters of caste violence or brutalities against indigenous people. Is it on account of our practiced Brahminism, or convenient definitions of Hinduism as essentially more inclusive than Hindutva? Is caste-based violence too ‘particular’ a concern that makes one disturbingly conscious of one’s politics, whereas secularism remains a sufficiently general concern, and therefore more comfortable to rally for? But at the same time, it is also important to consider whether mob lynchings of the public kind that have become increasingly common and mandated by wide popular support could be, at least partly, independent of existing analytical frameworks. Media, as the operational ground as well as the distributive infrastructure of the politically active publics, feeds on public spectacles of violence. An apparently empty mobilization of publics could also, and does often, lead to analytical variations made imperative and urgent. As also, it could lead to a solidarity which may not have much value by itself, but could be a necessary prerequisite for a politics to come, particularly when rational toolkits fail to explain the brutality unleashed, as in the case of Junaid. I am disturbed by the “sedimented banalities “ of liberal protest as much as many other commentators, but it worries me nearly as much that news of lynchmob violence may soon appear too banal, even lacking newsworthiness. Protest, therefore, is not merely to force the state into submission or make emphatic political statements, but also to restore and re-configure our selves, lest they should be numbed out of the political.

That said, the left-liberal upper-caste middle-class must state the underpinning cosmos of their emancipating cosmopolitanisms. This is meant not as a qualifying criterion, but as an urgent call that must not be ignored. We have every right to protest against categories that limit our political spectrum, but we only do a disservice to our politics by choosing to remain under the guise of neutral universalisms, negative self-references and the sedimented banalities of protest. Animated politics of gesticulations, symbols and shared vocabularies is perhaps impossible without masks. The popular, after all, is often constituted by masked clusters. But if we need not submit to the gatekeepers asking us to necessarily remove those masks, we must also not keep ourselves unaware of the masks we wear, as a matter of habit or deliberation. Like Aditya Nigam said in the 2011 debate on Anna movement, most analytics of the political come undone when confronted by the popular. However, if the political must embrace the popular, the popular cannot mask itself as an endgame, certified of political value. It must also urgently search for its political substance, even if hesitatingly, provisionally and strategically, conscious of a difficult balance between radical disruptions and populist consolidations.



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Akshaya Kumar Written by:

Akshaya Kumar teaches Film and Media Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi

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