Un. A prefix turned into politics. An antonym-making sound turning into a nation’s chorus. A devotion and unqualified belief in the reversibility of the hinge-like power of Un.
Something or the other is reversed every day: a new law tries to undo an older one, and that new one is shoved away by another. This new ethic of whimsicality is now the norm. The country turns into a palindrome.
A comic strip that aims to highlight the falling rupee against the dollar shows a man advising the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, thus: “Sir, the round rupee was a vile plan by Nehru. Let’s make it a square to stop it from rolling further downhill”. Behind PM Modi is a visual of a circular Re 1 coin. In the adviser’s hand is the design of a square Re 1 coin to replace it.
The Un of round must be a square.
Foreign Affairs is going through a process of Un-Westernisation. All governments before this one seemed to have placed disproportionate emphasis on cultivating profitable diplomatic relations with the West, represented particularly by America, and also England. So the first country PM Modi decided to visit after his coronation was Bhutan, a state that has traditionally been given little importance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
East, and neighbour is the Un of the West and the far away.
Wapsi means homecoming, a return, an Un. The word – or rather its current context of coinage – came into prominence with the call for ghar wapsi, a call for religious conversion, begun in 2014 and organised by Hindu organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism. This, of course, presumed that all Indians had once been Hindus and this method or reversibility was an easy way to return to the original and more authentic state.
This was how one returned to lost Hinduism: Un-Muslim, Un-Christian, and so on.
Award wapsi, a return of state-sponsored awards by the country’s most well respected writers and artists and scientists, began as a condemnation of the State’s silence on the murder of writers and free thinkers like MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Sahitya Akademi’s studied, even conspiratorial, silence on the subject precipitated the anger of writers who had received awards from India’s National Academy of Letters, and now felt compelled to return them as a mark of protest. In the age of hashtags, this gesture of condemnation quickly acquired a name: Award wapsi, the return of awards, a terrible act of mis-nomenclature, for no claim of purity was being made for the pre-award stage, like it was for non-Hindus who were being invited to return to their supposed long lost home of Hinduism. The academic Leela Gandhi has called the un-award gesture swarajic action, swaraj meaning self-rule, and looking at it this way makes it easier to see how award wapsi is the Un of State rule.
Then there was App wapsi. Aamir Khan, the Hindi film actor who spoke out against the culture of fear and his Hindu wife’s apprehension about their child’s future in the country, was threatened by trolls, had an FIR lodged against him, and was asked to “go to Pakistan”. This was the new normal, this noisy announcement of punishments, but what followed was hilarious and pathetic. Aamir Khan is brand ambassador of Snapdeal, an online portal that sells nearly everything, from clothes to electronics. The bhakts, as the Hindutva trolls have come to be labelled, did the unimaginably childish thing: they created a hashtag #AppWapsi, and urged like-minded citizens of their political and religious constituency to lower the ratings of Snapdeal. The result was not what they would have liked of course, but it was another installment of the same gesture of undoing.
Undo an App’s ratings. Un.
“Go to Pakistan”. Pakistan – Un of India.
“In addition to The Satanic Verses, here are ten books that India needs to unban now.” That was the headline of a piece by Shoaib Daniyal in Scroll.in. “I have no hesitation in saying that the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book was wrong,” declared former Finance Minister P Chidambaram in November 2015, some 27 years after it had been banned. When asked why he hadn’t admitted this before, he said, “If you had asked me 20 years ago, I would have told you the same thing”.
It’s coming from India’s poets: “There is no end to unknowing.” That is the first line of Tishani Doshi’s poem, A Fable for the 21st Century.
It’s coming from the writers. Samhita Arni, whose investment as a writer has often been in the past, as in her interpretation of the Mahabharata, posted this Facebook update in November 2015: “Sometimes I wonder if the world is moving backwards and not forwards. We live in the age of information – but we also live in a dark age, where we have no clear picture of what is really happening in certain parts of the world and… no real, clear understanding of our own recent past.”
It’s coming from the actors. Nandana Dev Sen, actress and writer, in talking about the censorious regime in India, said this during a literary festival in January 2016: “There are many unfreedoms at work ...”
It’s coming from Facebookers.
Bindu Nair, November, 29, 2015: “Did you know that the opposite of dies is not undies?”
Arundhati Ghosh, March 2, 2016, remarking on the ridiculous drama going around the vocal exhibition of nationalism and the legal penalties being invoked by the government to punish those they considered disobedient to their narrative of nationalism, wrote this: “If there is nationalist and anti-nationalist, there should also be un-nationalist”. (P Sainath, one of India’s most well respected journalists, was talking about the contradictory nature of the Un at work, without being consciously aware of it of course, when he spoke about the nature of the reprimand by the Indian government for not being nationalist enough: “For the past few weeks we have been punishing people for shouting slogans. But for the last few weeks we have been punishing people for not shouting slogans”.)
And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s coming from Facebook India. In November 2015, Facebook removed artist Orijit Sen’s Punjaban painting after an anonymous complaint about its nudity content. This Un prompted many of the artist’s admirers to post paintings of famous nudes.
An eye for an eye? No, an Un for an Un.
Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road has been renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road.
And Gurgaon has become Gurugram. (This is after Calcutta became Kolkata, Bombay Mumbai, Madras Chennai, Bangalore Bengaluru, just to name a few of the country’s largest cities.)
The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission will be renamed after Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, and some of the projects and awards and institutions named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family – Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv – will now be renamed after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, and so on.
Not intolerance but un-tolerance should be the word. The pro and against groups invest in un-ing the other’s gestures and actions – one group’s protest against the growing culture of religious intolerance in India is booed and shooed by another group. The actor Anupam Kher, for instance, a loyalist of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led a protest march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with fellow actors and film directors to protest against those who had been protesting the attacks on secular leaning writers and artistes.
One protest march to protest another. Un of an Un.
In March, 2016, Mint, one of India’s most popular business papers, carried a story on how garments are not being repeated – that is worn twice – not only by celebrities but also by common people. The lines accompanying the illustrations went thus: “It used to be a wedding dress – the only garment that you were unlikely to wear again… Now, a lot of women I know have a problem… Everyone has seen you wearing these clothes… You can’t just wear the same thing everywhere, of course. But will you?”
That is why these clothes – seen once in weddings or in Facebook photos – have become “Unwearables”.
Texts that had been given a place in school and university syllabuses are being unseated. Delhi University purged AK Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from its syllabus. The Rajasthan government has decided to remove poems and short stories by Urdu writers Ismat Chugtai and Safdar Hashmi.
The backward looking gaze, and the desire for the origin, a pride in the past that obliterates the pathways of reason and evolution, is the kind of Un that fuels a bogus nationalist pride. Plastic surgery, for instance, is said to be as old as the elephant god Ganesha. Or, to quote Prime Minister Modi: “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.”
Atavism. If only the middle – the period of colonialism – could go through a process of Un, the long and grand trajectory of the Past would glide smoothly into the Future.
The government has made a habit of proposing or declaring the introduction of a new law or rule and, following the public backlash against it, backtracking it soon after. Un.
After asking telecom companies to block access to more than 800 sites it considered pornographic, the Modi government, led by its telecom minister, backed down a few days later, saying that only sites showing child pornography would be blocked.
After declaring in the 2016 Union Budget that individuals would not be allowed complete withdrawal of the Employees Provident Fund before the retirement age of 58 years, the government, after facing a backlash from trade unions, decided to backtrack the decision.
Declare. Backtrack. Un.
NDTV India recently exhibited an Un motif. In November 2015, NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, veteran studio analyst of many Indian elections, declared the National Democratic Alliance victorious in the elections in Bihar. This was at about 9 am, just after counting had begun. By noon it had become apparent that it was not the NDA but the Grand Alliance which was winning. Shekhar Gupta, well known journalist, became a good illustration of Un in motion – he had explained the reasons for the supposed victory of the NDA in great detail in the morning; Once the real results were out, he set out to do the opposite, explain why the NDA’s rival, the Grand Alliance, had won.
The RSS has asked Myntra, an online shopping portal, to stop selling leather belts and shoes because it is made from cow hide, cows being the sacred animal of the Hindus. Un-sell = Dead cows coming to life?
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a government scheme launched to keep the country clean, is an appropriate metaphor for Un. In the cleaning of surfaces, material and metaphorical, of the deposition of dust and history and scrubbing the work of time and event is the exhibition of the fierce urge of Un, to undo all that the nation considers dirty. Un-unclean.
A nation, like the monkey on an oily bamboo pole, Up and Un.