Those who remember Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will remember the murder by the Roman mob of Cinna, the poet.
As the cortege carrying the slain emperor set out, the infuriated mob sighted Cinna. Mistaking him for Cinna the conspirator, it set upon him. ‘I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet’, the man shouted to save himself. Shakespeare gives us the responses of ‘citizens’.
One of these, hearing the poet’s screaming self-exculpation, was matter-of-fact: ‘It is no matter; his name is Cinna…’
Another said, simply, ‘Tear him, tear him…’ while yet another, not missing out the poetic dimension decided to clothe his murderous intent with a creative subterfuge ‘Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses’. The charge was changed but the punishment was perpetrated.
The phrase ‘mob’ is classist, elitist.
It conjures the superior air of the much-bathed, well-swathed talking through lavender and talc (or Old Spice and vibhuti) of the ‘vast unwashed’.
There is an anti-Demos sentiment hidden in the word ‘mob’, a Patrician dismissal of the Plebian. But as in Caesar’s and Mark Antony’s and Brutus’ Rome, so also in our times we must not forget where ‘mob’ gets its ‘mentality’ from.
The Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 came after August 16, that year, had been ordained by the Muslim League as ‘Direct Action Day’.
It was that coolly arrived at decision of a political elite that brought out the worst in both communities. In the space of 72 hours, 4,000 lay dead on the streets of Calcutta. The slayer and the slain were both victims of the sly.
The pattern has been re-played. Three films have strengthened public memory of how this has happened. Amu (2005) directed by Shonali Roy about the 1984 riots in Delhi, Parzania (2007) directed by Rahul Dholakia and David Donihue about the 2002 Gulbarg Society (Ahmedabad) massacre, and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008), on the Gujarat riots are all about manipulation and murder. They are also about how politics can disfigure the political imagination of people.
Mass murders are not the only things that are orchestrated.
Like the ‘citizens’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, people can be turned against particular persons by the merest suggestion. There are many versions about what led to Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal from the office of Prime Minister of Kashmir and arrest in August 1953.
Overnight, everything to do with him was suspect, all his associates were under surveillance, most prominently, the intrepid Mridula Sarabhai. Jayaprakash Narayan was pilloried for suggesting talks with Sheikhsahib and for having the ‘temerity’ to suggest a measure of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir.
It was only weeks before prime minister’s death, in 1964, that he rolled a discredited policy back and ordered Sheikh Abdullah’s release “ba-izzat”, with the past forgotten, and the path cleared for his return to power.
The Akali leader Master Tara Singh, the Dravida movement’s charismatic leaders EV Ramaswami Naicker and CN Annadurai in Tamil Nadu, Phizo in Nagaland, Laldenga in Mizoram, the youthful leaders of the ULFA are among the better-known politicians who went through a phase of being described as ‘secessionist’ and ‘anti-State’, before being seen in the natural light of democratic dissent.
If non-officials and political personalities outside of the architecture of the State (which, in our country, includes the parties in power) as much as consider alternatives to an armed response to Naxalism or what in West Bengal, at least, is simply called ‘Maovad’, they are served the medicine that was given to JP and to Mridula Sarabhai in the 1960s.
In fact, the draught is bitterer, accompanied now by the insinuation that they are spreading anarchy and encouraging manslaughter.
The violence perpetrated by men and women, many of them incredibly young, in the name of Maovad is abominable, politically and civilisationally.
It needs to be countered emphatically and not, as minister Jairam Ramesh warned, ‘romanticised’. But branding individuals who do not repeat the received ‘line’ about Maovad as Maovadi is, to use a phrase Amartya Sen coined in another context, “valuationally gross”.
‘Maoism’ and ‘Maoist’ are, like ‘Naxalism’ and ‘Naxalite’, generalisations, over-simplifications. Layered attitudes, varied beliefs, differentiated responses nuance their creed, mottle their code, disaggregate their catalogue of heroes and heroines.
Their Kauravas and Pandavas are different from what other readers make of Vyasa’s characters. Their gods are not Hastinapura’s elite, nor are their demons forest chieftains. Their minds hold bruised memories, their hands bloodied bayonets.
Jayaprakash Narayan would have said: ‘Let us try understanding the mind, heart and language of this India. We do better with disease; fellow-citizens cannot be a disease’. He would have been in the establishment’s line of ire for not speaking from an official script. He would have also been in the Maoists’ line of fire, for not justifying them. He would have been a Cinna with both.
Fortunately for veracity, the India of 2013 is not quite Caesar’s Rome and the collaborator tag cannot be so easily pinned on the poet’s lapel. Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar, BD Sharma, EAS Sarma, Harsh Mander, P Sainath, Jaideep Hardikar may not agree with each other on all matters.
Nor would writers like Arundhati Roy and Mahashweta Devi or senior academics like Ramachandra Guha, Amit Bhaduri and Nandini Sundar. Their areas of interest, styles of expression and forms of independent action are distinct and autonomous.
But all of them have this in common with Jayaprakash Narayan: they are feared by the powerful for being strong. They are resented by the authoritarian for being democratic. They are rejected by the violent for not endorsing their violence. Above all, they are pilloried by the insecure for being free.
Violence, including Maoist violence is anathema to a liberal political order. But so are illiberal rhetoric, disinformation, calumny. We do not have to go to political theory class to understand this. It is enough that we take a look at our nation’s recent history.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal