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Kozhikode, December 23, 2003


WRESTLING WITH THE WIND A Graphic Route To Fascism


By Sadanand Menon

In his presidential address just now, Prof.Gopalan Kutty remarked that “through his work, Abu Abraham upheld the citizen’s right to criticize and to dissent.” That is an excellent observation, to which I would like to add that there was one more right that Abu claimed for a citizen, something he sustained throughout his cartooning career: the right to offend.


As an unsparing lampooner of all bubble-like occasions, Abu Abraham might arguably have been the first person to dissect – with a few deft and economical strokes – the lofty tone and intent of an ‘Abu Memorial Lecture’.

Equally plausibly, he might simply have chuckled into his pipe, like he did upon being made a Rajya Sabha MP and drawn a pocket cartoon acknowledging that today’s organizers, Secular Collective and the Bankmen’s Club, “have a sense of humour”.


No such doubts and conflicts beset me. I am simply overwhelmed that an idea such as a Memorial Lecture in Abu’s honour has even been thought up. Because it is imperative today to both recognize and wholeheartedly acknowledge the steady, unsparing and silent work put in by secular intellectuals and artists over the past five decades; the kind of unsung work that eventually constitutes the very armature of our liberal democracy. Without their dogged pursuit of basic freedoms, our democratic spaces might have been highjacked much earlier. It is important, therefore, to celebrate and keep alive the memory of people like Abu Abraham, to constantly remind us of the importance of individual initiatives in checkmating authoritarianism.


Besides being among India’s outstanding social satirists and independent minded cartoonists, Abu was a genial friend whose company always yielded many insights into ‘the mind of the cartoonist’. In an elegant and lucid way, he had once revealed the trick behind his masterstroke of portraying politicians in animal likenesses. Many in this audience will still remember with glee the vast zoological style-chart of political leaders that he created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, Morarji Desai as an owl, Jagjivan Ram as a fish, Gulzarilal Nanda as a cat, Indira Gandhi as a long-beaked stork, Kamaraj as a fox and so on – unerringly pigeonholing political typologies.


He had explained this visually allusive method as a diagnostic display of genus traits. With disarming candour he had revealed, “An elephant, after all, is a pig with an elongated nose.” In one swift flash one could guess that he had instantly framed you as a bullfrog with a blockhead. Such a stylistic facility could have easily derailed him to remain a mere funster. But, to our good luck, he stuck to his self-imposed role of a sharp and perceptive social analyst.

And, after the brave and spunky acts of daily resistance to the Emergency in the mid-‘70s that we all remember, the one idea that recurred repeatedly in Abu’s cartoons since the late ‘80s was his relentless whistle-blowing on the worsening communal politics. It was as if he visually saw the Frankenstein of fundamentalism/fascism being cloned before his eyes. And being the fighter for free _expression that he was, he never refrained from naming the beast.

There was no concession here to humour or frivolity; there were no lenient jabs. Post-Babri demolition, his work in ‘The Telegraph’ and ‘The Tribune’ had a no-nonsense clarity which (combined with the work of other cartoonists active those years, like Laxman, Puri, Kutty, Unny, Ranga, Ramamurthy, Rajesh, Ravishankar, Ghafoor, Yeshudasan, Ponnappa, Tailang, Sudhir Dar, etc) converted the cartoon-space in the daily papers to among the most volatile and politically charged spaces in the Indian media. Suddenly cartoonists could say all that the edit-writers had become to numb to say.


It was this ability of Abu Abraham to speak against the grain that should become the pivot around which a discourse of oppositional voices to the anti-democratic, fascist, neo-colonial tendencies of our times should be addressed.

I would, therefore, like to thank the initiators of this event – including T.K.Ramachandran, Sudhir, Unny and others – for seizing the moment. While there would have been better speakers for the occasion than me, I acknowledge the honour and the responsibility it implies. In the first part of my lecture I propose to try and lay a framework within which to narrate our present situation and, in the second part, look a little more closely at the kind of new, sexed up symbology and iconography of the Sangh Parivar which is breeding rapidly – unchecked, uncountered, uncontested.

I would like to begin with a quotation – the last paragraph from Albert Camus’s The Plague which, I have no doubt, is familiar to this audience:


And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.”


It is this plague bacillus we need to be concerned about in our own times.

Last year, columnist Praful Bidwai had written in The Hindustan Times about a disturbing conversation he had with Mr.Anil Wilson, principal of Delhi’s elite St.Stephen’s College. He was shocked to find that over sixty percent of students who are interviewed for admission by the college consider none less than Adolf Hitler their role model for having “given self-esteem to Germany.”


This sort of glorification of the cult of authority and fascination with force and violence is endemic within Indian society by now. With our inventive plethora of exclusions from a rainbow of caste, class, religious, regional, linguistic and gender compartments, not a day passes without it seeming that now we have gone over the top. The thresholds of democratic tolerance are being coldly and methodically pushed and tested.


In an analogy used by poet Javed Akhtar, a frog will leap in panic and escape if it is, all-of a sudden, dunked into a pond of boiling water. But if the temperature of water is slowly and systematically increased so that the frog gets conditioned to and accepts every increment on the mercury scale, a time would come when the temperature would climb above the tolerable limit and kill the frog, without the frog displaying the least reaction or resistance. The frog, in this analogy, happens to be Indian democracy.


The audience here will not be entirely unfamiliar with our own past more than 75 years of infamy during which a systematic, organized, pre-planned, orchestrated, cynical laboratory experiment has been in place for manufacturing a brute majoritarian, patriarchal Hindu Rashtram which would, through sheer dehumanizing belligerence, subjugate all minorities and women to a secondary status.


If the German Nazi party was born in 1919 and the Italian Fascist party in 1922, let us not forget that our own khakhi knicker outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) came into being in 1925. Subsequent to the Montague-Chelmsford reforms, they gleefully jumped into the spiral of escalating competitive communal mobilization (the Shuddhi and Sangathana among the Hindus and the Tabligh and Tanzim among the Muslims) and set about their task of rapidly harnessing communal prejudice, stoking religious jingoism and injecting psychological hatred against the minorities.


To borrow the words of Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the RSS succeeded in legitimizing the same “eliminationist ideology” with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits in India as the Nazis did with the Jews in Germany. All of them became fremdkoerper or ‘alien bodies’.


In the fifty plus years since the strategic assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by pathologically disturbed elements of the RSS, we have been witness to the planned (what Prof.K.N.Panikker calls) “molecular transformation of civil society.” The focus of the Sangh and its extended parivaar has been such that within five years of coming to power at the Centre, they have successfully usurped institution after secular institution with minimum resistance from a depleted constituency of troubleshooters. Education, history, textbooks, archaeology, museums, social sciences, nuclear technology, healthcare, popular festivals and art and cultural organizations have all caved to in to the mixed tactic of steady nibbling from one flank and putsch-like serial assaults from the other carried on by these congenital rodents.


The alarming situation now is that even if the BJP does not win elections with as much ease as they won recently in three states, they will not agonize much as their social consolidation has already won them many salient and invisible victories.

There is a tendency in current political readings to get trapped in the logic of the relentless aggrandizements of communalism without realizing that it, in fact, constitutes a planned attack on the State. Communalism is merely the Trojan Horse in whose belly is hidden the real monster called ‘state authoritarianism’. The majority community in whose name unspeakable crimes are being daily committed and who do not speak about it to anyone or display any sign of outrage, are destined to be the real targets of a newly beefed up and muscularised State. But they still do not know it, choosing naively to believe that a Hindu Rashtram will be their benefactor.


Such mass naivety is the swamp from which reaction spreads like a noxious fume, instilling in us an essential “fear of freedom.” It is on such mystical hot air of repressed humanity that fascism is built. For, the development of freedom requires that one be ruthlessly free of illusions. That is the only method to acquire a sense of social responsibility. Devoid of this, one merely becomes a committed consumer of “fascinating fascism” (Susan Sontag’s famous categorization of Leni Riefenstahl’s films glorifying Nazi power).


One can invoke today, for our own context, the warning notes in Jean Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched Of The Earth: “In other days India was the name of a country. We should take care that in our times it does not become the name of a nervous disease”.


The resistance to such political/cultural manoeuvres can only arise from a better comprehension of their complexity. If Wilhelm Reich calls fascism “the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man,” in our own context political scientist Aijaz Ahmed feels that it is “not a frontal seizure of power, but a hurricane from below.”

As the old cliché goes, an ill wind blows no one any good. And an ill wind is blowing across our land. Somewhere it is a gale, somewhere a storm, somewhere a hurricane. Fanned by the winds of bigotry and fear, the bush fire of communal hatred is billowing through streets and settlements, jumping and leaping voraciously as it encounters tinderbox after tinderbox kept all ready for its flames. The question is how does one combat this? How does one wrestle with the wind?


Right-wing communal violence one can perhaps fight, resist. But how does one fight the fascist mentality of the ‘little man’ who is enslaved and craves authority while, at the same time, being rebellious. This is a nebulous, shadowy mentality that lurks in every corner, never revealing direct intent. It is a mentality that lurks, perhaps, also in you and me. How does one fight or resist this immaterial residue of the mystical contagion?


Simplistic talk of secularism is not going to inoculate us from this plague. On the one hand, we will need the community of artists, intellectuals and activists to refashion their imaginary and generate work that contributes to a transformative consciousness. On the other hand, we will also have to learn to be light and supple. I find myself imagining what would the legendary Guru Dronacharya’s advice have been to anyone wanting to fight Bhima, the Vaayuputra. What can be the strategy and technique to pin down the offspring of the wind?


An analogy from Kalarippayattu strikes me. The vadakkan (northern) form is known for its jumps, springs, leaps, rolls. But the thekkan (southern) heavy-body form believes that there is no fight if you are not at arms-length. So the entire form is practiced in a space called ‘maadu padum idam’ or ‘enough space for a cow to lie in’. Thus, this complex form is an absorbing hand’s length sort of flurry of feints and dodges and ducks. There is no other way. One needs to engage with the communal canker physically in order to smother it psychologically.


But then, in these dark times, our artists and activists also need to stay committed to the wellsprings of life and renewal to transform us as human beings. Otherwise, like Bertolt Brecht lamented in his 1938 poem, To Those Born Later:


“Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless world is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet heard

The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when

A talk about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies a silence about so many horrors?”


Postscript – A Collective Exercise


The time has come now to initiate a series of processes through which to recover some of the ground that secularists have lost through sheer inertia or incomprehension or insularity. We have remained silent and passive witnesses to the steady and cunning semiology of appropriations taking place under our very noses, which is instrumental in the rampant restructuring of collective memory and the construction of a hegemonic master narrative.


In no time we seem to have lost to the other side symbols like Om or the lotus or the kaavi/gherua colour or concepts like swadeshi or icons like Gandhi and Bose. The communal flank seems to have succeeded in their strategy of aggressive marketing of majoritarianism through the use of a new symbology that seeks to aestheticise violence, aggression, insult.


Even a cursory examination will reveal that the Sangh Parivaar has merely extended the agenda of Vaishnavisation implicit in the National movement. In an essential way, this was central to the core of the political philosophy of Gandhi on one side and the artistic revival initiated by the like of Ravi Varma (painting) and Rukmini Devi (dance) on the other.


It has not taken even fifty years for Sri Rama to now be incorporated as a full paid-up member of the Sangh Parivaar. And from a benign hero of the Valmiki Ramayana who is also a force of nature, we are now reduced to a macho, chest-baring Rama (a la Salman Khan) out to globalise Hindutva with his bow and arrow. Of course, the Rama as a venerable abstraction of our imagination, got concretized into a lump of flesh and muscle through the agency of Ramanand Sagar and the idiot-box. However, scholars like Jyotindra Jain have demonstrated how even the traditions of 19th century miniature painting, particularly the pechwaais of Nathdwara and the wall paintings of Shekhavati, constructed a visual cult of Krishna and Rama for the emergent middle classes by cutting and pasting the newly invented images of these of these divine heroes on to more visually pleasing landscapes and architecture from Europe – a practice still gratuitously carried on by song-and-dance sequences in our popular cinema. It is a process our progressives remained silent spectators to.


There is, of course, a semiotic conflict in all this. Take for example, the kaavi/gherua/ saffron colour, which has now become the colour of Hindutva. Not so long ago, this was the colour of higher consciousness, pacifism and satvika bhava. But it has swiftly reduced to become the symbol and sign of political ascendancy of the Indian right wing. All those who witnessed the saturation televisation of the swearing in ceremonies for Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje earlier this December could not have missed the ‘saffron statement’ in the x-udground – a mass of sadhus and sanyasis who thronged the stage. Yet, this retro-nativist idea of kaavi/gherua conflicts with the industrialized, mass-produced, chemical dyed, anti-ecological, marketised and tamasik product that it is today. The old kaavi vesham was hand-spun, hand-woven and vegetable dyed. The harade (myrobalan) or manjishtha substance that gave it its colour have long been known to be soothing, calming, pacifying agents. Both are known for their antiseptic properties. Hence they were considered appropriate for self-abnegating rishis and munis. In its late capitalist manifestation, this is reduced to a mill-made fabric which is coloured with Aniline and Naphtha dyes, particularly the highly carcinogenic Metanil Yellow. No wonder the thinking of those wearing it too turns carcinogenic.


The other symbolic morphology we need to trace is with the emblem/logo/graffiti of the lotus, yet another Vaishnavite substance. It is interesting to see how the visual of the lotus, with its central full petal and flanking half petals on either side, has been morphed into a trishul with a central spear and two flanking petal-like spikes. This makes possible the short journey of legitimizing a kamala diksha into a trishul dikha. Once again, the satvika bhava inherent to this natural symbol -- signifying auspiciousness, fertility, fecundity – is led, cavalierly, to signify it’s diametrically opposite meaning of weaponisation and war. This also facilitates its aggressive and self-inscriptive visceral manifestations as the tattoo, tonsure and body-paint.


Incidentally, it is also interesting how the trishul, which is a Shaivite device, is conscripted to perform Vaishnavite duties. It is akin to the similar invasive surgery performed on the Ganesha icon, a Shaivite dhaatu, which has been commandeered to the cause of pan-Hindutva. Ganesha is being increasingly depicted now through gigantic commissioned murtis, during Vinayaka Chaturthi, as a Hanuman clone who tears open his chest to reveal Rama/Sita/Lakshmana, or as the long-toothed bore of Varahavatar rescuing the universe or in a midget form as Vamanavatar.

It is worth remembering that in the late ‘60s, when BJP’s former avatar, the Jan Sangh first contested elections with the ‘lamp’ as their election symbol, O.V.Vijayan had rushed up with a brilliant cartoon in The Hindu. It showed a ballot box with the ‘lamp’ emblem; the caption below read ‘Mein Lampf’. In a simple and urgent way he had alerted us, even then, to the clear and present danger. It is this kind of graphic alertness we need to develop today to expose all fascist meta-language.


I would like to conclude with a comment that Abu Abraham made at a symposium on ‘Cartoons in the Times of Communalism’ in New Delhi, in 1993. Abu said, “Cartoonists can function only if there is public awareness. A cartoonist cannot create a mood or public opinion by himself. He can only pursue what is already forming in the public mind.”


I wish the Secular Collective and all those present here will contribute to the creation of a new imaginary for a new politics.