Dissent and democracy

We must re-read the essay that reminds us of the time India’s political leaders encouraged debate

Ramachandra Guha wrote about the engaged opposition between Jayaprakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru.

There is one conspicuous quality missing in all our great political debates. We’re creating hilarious memes, we’re locking horns on recent national decisions, and we’re all stumbling towards an arguably science-fiction version of Digital India. The polarity of our politics has never been greater.

Every fortnight we hear our Prime Minister either placate or incentivise the nation. He’s the one who will set the tempo. If it’s polarisation he seeks, social media will give him just that. What we are missing is the philosopher. The fair debater with a measured response.

The leader of any country, ideally, has the nation and its future interest in mind. What differentiates the leaders from the politicians? We go could go on about that all night, and we’d be none the clearer. The more important question is, can we as a nation agree over whether we’ve had a visionary leader since 1947?

As a political history nerd, I find solace in Ramachandra Guha’s collection of essays, Democrats and Dissenters. While the collection covers much of our political history and its evolution, the one essay in the collection that got my neurons firing was “Debating Democracy: Jayaprakash Narayan Verses Jawaharlal Nehru.”

What JP should remind us of

Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, was a political leader and social activist well known for his opposition movement against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. But before that, he and Nehru had quite the relationship. It was a sizzling time, for the early post-independence decades had meaty political discourse. Parties and leaders were discussing the role of India in the new world, the power of religions and factions, and the integration of minorities. Things that are merely buzzwords now were tangible issues to be dealt with in real time.

Today, we’re either worshipping Narendra Modi’s vision or scampering to find a voice of reason to oppose it. And we’re hard-pressed to find a critic who can walk a tightrope with balance.

When Nehru was prime minister, he certainly didn’t lack critics, but they were far from the Twitter Trolls of 2016. These critics were articulate, passionate, challenging, and, most importantly got responses from none other than Nehru himself. They were a mix of hard and soft conservatives, communists, socialists, and democrats. As Guha describes them, “…first, they wrote extensively on public affairs; second, the speeches and essays that bore their names were their own handiwork rather than that of a ghostwriter; third, the ideas they expressed were then carried forward by the political parties they led or represented.’ How’s that for a manifesto for protest?

A year after the British left India, JP played an important role forming the Congress Socialist Party, a wing of the Congress. After the Congress won with a thick majority in 1952, Nehru called JP in to try to integrate the socialist wing. The talks didn’t work out, and JP wasn’t interested in organised politics any more. He was devoting much of his time to social issues.

So, for the record, JP had no political stake, but remained as fiercely passionate about the vision of democracy in India. And this is precisely when he engaged Nehru in a debate through letters that advised and questioned the latter’s role in the future of the country. In his letter he described a need for a “national” to represent the country, as opposed to a mere party leader – a statement that is of paramount importance right now. To deconstruct this meaningfully requires us to comprehend the idea of a true national.

Why opposition is desirable

A true national might represent a specific party, but they consider the collective nation, the differences and diversity in thought, equal stakeholders. Such a leader lends their ears as well as an amplifier to other voices, to prevent national myopia or idolatry politics.

JP thought that a real national leader would “encourage” opposition, since this would always be the hallmark of democracy. He was stunningly aware that facilitating opposition would also result in chaos. Plenty of undesirable things would emerge: factions, identity politics, and power play. In spite of this, he believed it would serve as a measure to check the monolithic sentiments and avoid totalitarianism.

According to Guha’s essay, Nehru gave the equivalent of a social media nudge to JP. He thought JP was playing “hide and seek” between the pillars of politics and social service. Funny he said that, because I bring a timely present-day comparison.

Today’s social commenters opposing government policy are often heckled for talking about the nation. In all of 144 characters they are instructed not indulge in armchair activism, or told they have no legs to stand on because they aren’t soldiers. The classic response to shut down any kind of social commentary is this one: public thinkers are far too privileged to speak for the “poor”.

JP had the perfect response to this: who if not the common citizen must pitch in when it comes to shifting our collective perception? We, the national pedestrians, need to speak up. We need to debate and transfer critique and perspective where it is necessary. Otherwise politics will remain a “sordid party game” where non-partisan views and ideas have no business being involved.

The elegance of dissent

We could make the case for thriving public thought and opinion. Even though intellectuals are being increasingly trolled, dismissed, and shut down, dissent is still palpable. But is our voice of dissent being heard? Can it be engaged with, save by members of the pathetic party-funded tweet trollers?

Even the harshest Congress critic must then reserve applause for the Nehru era. Because even though Nehru disagreed with, and even chided JP, he engaged with him: articulately, respectfully, and intellectually. Nehru not only read and digested JP’s words but wrote back to him at length, even surpassing the number of pages that JP originally wrote.

Here we witness democracy on wheels, where a Prime Minster of a nation was moving his words to meet the challenges of a critic’s feedback. Nehru’s response included his feelings of hesitation about encouraging too much opposition. His response was not without a fair counterpoint: that the many factions and deviant visions which would be a result of excessive opposition would ultimately halt the nation from working towards one common goal: to move forward progressively into the new world. He was especially frightened of “bogus opposition” based solely on special identity parties that would rely on cultural dogma instead of equality.

Here lies an example of how modern India once practiced politics. One so far from what we witness now that it’s almost surreal to consider that leadership and politics had a unifying goal to begin with. Guha ends his essay with several reasons this exchange needs to resurface in today’s political reality. But the one most profound is that this political psyche is now unquestionably extinct. And this is the grain I am still choking on.

How did we go from a thriving democracy, one that appreciated the spirit of debate enough to respond to it with equal measures of concern and integrity to being polarised agenda-filled trolls? When did we, as a nation, silently agree to show our allegiance solely to star power and cardboard PR? And when exactly did we become so intolerant to a counter opinion? An intolerance so enraged and insecure that we cannot perform the simple task of typing responses with measured facts and respect for a perspective that could in turn give us something to consider?

If you blame the current climate on absence of meaningful opposition, a semi-autocratic prime minister, or the failures of the Congress, then the present is precisely what we deserve. If we hold a mirror to our country, its reflection will only show our stoic compliance in murdering the most essential soldier in this army called our democracy.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.