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Does Writing As A Mode Of Activism Really Work?

08/12/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Fort Langley National Historic Site, Man writing letter with fountain pen.

"I will tell you this, I may be dead, but my ideas will surely not die." -- Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoni-Nigerian writer, speaking to the tribunal that sent him to the gallows."

I grew up in the milieu of post-liberalisation middle-class India and amid the diaspora in the Gulf. Both held socialist principles in great contempt, as the economic ideals then were of the emerging Asian Tigers. The downfall of Calcutta from an industrial powerhouse to a pale former shadow, due to the policies of Left activism such as hartals (public strikes) and a poor work culture meant that it became passé to speak for the margins. I was personally raised in a household filled with Marx and Engels, with a much thumbed copy of Das Kapital in the library. We did not have fancy furniture in our Navi Mumbai home, but we surely had Marx.

Activists of all hues are represented by the corporate media as blocks on the road to the utopia of late capitalism.

In the 1990s, activism was framed as a relic of past economic sins by media publications and channels such as India Today and Star News. Activism was the forte of two types of people. The first was the chic "jholawala" -- the well-heeled, latte-drinking intellectual, usually a product of the famed Jawaharlal Nehru University, Presidency College or the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, perhaps even an Oxbridge or Ivy League degree. The other extreme was the grassroots activist working in the rural hinterland in India, with demonstrable sympathies towards the left. Meanwhile, in "India Unbound" (to use the words of philosopher-CEO Gurcharan Das), the urban Indian strove for an engineering degree, followed by an MBA most times (Humanities degrees are not considered worth a mention), as the magic combination that would unlock a treasure chest. The Infosys and HCL success stories were endlessly circulated, taking on the power of parable and legend.

The poor, marginalised Indian was not sexy enough for primetime news. However, the failure of "India Shining" ushered in an era of the Left-supported socialist politics of the Congress. It lasted for a decade. More than secular, progressive politics, graft and slow development dominated the discourse. It was known as the "missed decade" by some TV studio commentators. This was the decade that supposedly would have brought India in touching distance of China. We had a "Harvard man" in office, in the words of the influential activist and writer Arundhati Roy.

Yet, an unbridled orgy of graft derailed a government which had some good social welfare programs on the ground such as MNREGA and Public Health initiatives. The current Modi regime is dismantling these in favour of private sector involvement, as the Dalal Street don wields far more influence than the anganwadi worker in rural Ratnagiri. Activists of all hues are represented by the corporate media as blocks on the road to the utopia of late capitalism. People displaced and killed by riots or by mega projects are simply footnotes in a report, gathering dust in a sarkari office.

English perpetuates an elitism driven by language, and removes the Lutyens Delhi circles from the conversations on the ground... However, there is a positive...

No one will scream "the nation wants to know" for the invisible Indian who cannot buy a share for a blue chip. Activism is not aspirational, the 42-inch flat screen TV in the living room is.

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Activism and writing are connected by the common bond of language. The limits of language mean the limits of our world, to paraphrase Wittgenstein.

The English-educated elite dominate structures of power. I am one of them. English is not a language in India, but a '"class". English has the appeal of connecting the average middle class Indian to the global circuit of capitalism. The IITs and IIMs have their content taught in English and not in the vernacular languages. English, bequeathed by our former colonial masters, has helped the South Asian diaspora to be enormously successful. We have had a rich literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Chetan Bhagat, the enormously popular writer in English, has brought "Ingris" to the first generated educated in India. He has democratised reading in English, making it accessible to the masses.

But, the chasm between India and Bharat is accentuated by access to the English language as well. English perpetuates an elitism driven by language, and removes the Lutyens Delhi circles from the conversations on the ground in Satara or Purulia. However, there is a positive in knowing English as it gives the writer the access to engage the world.

How many vernacular translations do we read?

English has enabled us to converse with the global commercial and political elite and sometimes challenge them. Access to the language has given us the cultural resources to challenge dominant thought processes of the times. Aruna Roy, Yogendra Yadav, Harsh Mander and Medha Patkar all speak in English to engage the wider world in their stories of struggle and resistance. Many an underground Naxalite leader has been known to be well-versed in English. Power is reinforced and circulated through the language, and writers have used this weapon to challenge the present, in the hope of a better future.

Does the knowledge of English alienate the urban Indian from consciousness of the marginalised?

Lobbying for social change, unfortunately needs the lexicon of resistance, and English is unfortunately the Lingua Franca for achieving this end. Ambedkar encouraged his followers to learn English as a tool to beat caste oppression. The subaltern who are erased from the mainstream discourse are often erased due to their inability to communicate in the language of power. Writers, although guilty of the "politics of representation" in text, lend a voice to the silenced and this is the essence of activism -- speaking up when all others are muted.

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Writing as a form of activism enables the helpless soul to speak to the structures of power, even if it does not listen. Rob Nixon in his seminal environmental justice work Slow Violence, writes:

"In one of his final letters from detention, Saro-Wiwa assured his friend, the novelist William Boyd: 'There's no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I'll have to bear the pain of the moment... the most important thing for me is that I've used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it... I think I have the moral victory.' "

Writing as a form of activism enables the helpless soul to speak to the structures of power, even if it does not listen.

Saro-Wiwa used his writing as a strategic tool to voice the oppression that his Ogoni micro-minority faced in the oil-rich delta region in Nigeria. The oppressors, according to him, were the state and multinational companies. He faced the gallows as he used his writing as a tool for activism. The gallows did not silence his ideas of fermenting resistance. Silencing this writer's voice amplified his message, and this created the resistance he wished to generate against the military dictatorship and its transnational oil corporation bed fellows, which left the delta region polluted and bereft of its natural ecosystem. Saro-Wiwa utilised his writing to force the structures to listen to him. Activism needs guts, which he had in ample measure. His death brought the focus on the oppression, which was the ultimate oppression in it itself. His writing succeeded.

Arundhati Roy in our times speaks against the "upper caste Hindu corporate state" that is India. Her voice brings the global lens on anti-minority and anti-poor projects in India in a space where it is a rare flicker of hope.

Writing becomes impactful with guts. Activism is all about guts and intellect, and thus, writing and activism are good bedfellows.

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