By Rupayan Mukherjee
“Gareeb ke tasveer maat khicho” (Don’t frame the poor), snaps the unkempt woman before the camera. One of the innumerable faces that you see and try not to see as you make your way through the bustling streets of a metropolis, she has spent her lifetime with her family on the streets of Bombay. Both municipality workers and reporters have hunted her, the former with the intention of evicting her for she ‘pollutes’ the city; the latter with the urge to re-present her for she represents the underside of modernity and urbanization. As the fearless and sensitive lens of Anand Patwardhan’s camera strives to preserve/ record the irreducible real which manages to survive in traces outside all “forms of cinematic embellishment” (Patwardhan), it records a febrile state of marginality which does not conform with the prevalent trends of representing marginalization. As the woman rebukes the photographer, “Your fame will grow, you will print our photo! What do you do for us? You can do nothing…the poor has no one”, one finds the fading attempts of self-representation of a singular and irreducible state of marginality. Patwardhan refrains from ‘cutting’, his documentary Bombay our City becomes a dialogic space where representation is problematized by feeble, yet firm interventions of self-representation. Dialogue…which the Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal correlates with democracy, as he unequivocally asserts “Dialogue is democracy” (Theatre xvi).
Democracy as a political practice is representational in nature, where the elected is a representative of the electorate. The electorate is the person, the elected ought to be its perfect shadow in a sunshine day. The electorate is the object, the elected ought to be the image. The ethical-political liability of the elected is to represent the electorate. It is this pious process of representation which can procure a mode of governance that is not based on a mere principle of majority but plurality. To (mis) understand democracy as populism is to mistake the donkey for a horse or to eat a chocolate without having removed the wrapper. Unfortunately, the popular trends of political reading have started to interpret and advocate democracy on numerological grounds, i.e., as a political principle that is determined by number. Undoubtedly the opinion of majority is fundamental to the formation of a democratic government, yet to reduce democracy to a majoritarian pragmatics is suggestive of a myopic political understanding which strategically denies the vital role that minority plays in a democratic framework. Abraham Lincoln, arguably the Father of modern-day democracy, believed that a democratic government belonged as much to the outnumbering as to the outnumbered. In a rather uncanny biography, which does not necessarily hero-worship Lincoln but is also critical of his political vision, Elizabeth Brown accredits him as the political philosopher who does not merely “cement the concept of majority rule.” Instead, as Brown asserts, Lincoln urges the minority to “…not simply take their ball and go home, but stay and tough it out, make their case, fight and persuade their way back to power” (Six Encounters 22). Nadia Urbinati remarks that a democratic political society is constituted by both ‘will’ and ‘opinion’ where electoral process of representation is complemented by “political competition and debates…among diverse competing views” which proliferate the possibilities of self-representation (Democracy 2).
The position of the peasant in the modus operandi of electoral representation in India has been profusely problematic. While most of the political parties contesting in elections often claim to unconditionally prioritise agrarian concerns and unabashedly advocate their agrophilic tendencies in their election manifestos, what is often materialised in the end is a corporate State that is typically inclined to safeguard the interest of the urban bourgeoisie. Within the limits of reformative politics that relies on constitutional means of participation, the peasant has often been fated to be a poor player who struts and frets his hour on the stage (read: who stains the nails of his index finger in blue) and then is heard no more. His self-representation in the political imaginary of the Nation is restrained to his vote. Of course, there are stray instances of a Charan Singh (the former Prime Minister who had argued in print for a 60% reservation of ‘services’ for ‘sons of cultivators’) or M.S. Tikait (who had organised a political demonstration at the heart of Delhi, formidable enough to force the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to move his own rally to the outskirts) who have managed to procure for themselves a position within the electoral polity. Yet, it is a truth universally acknowledged and a matter of little contention that peasantry in India is the subaltern embodied to perfection. Their political participation is barely manifested in electoral representation; they are either muted by the cacophony of empty promises that constitute the performance of the farce called democracy, or else they have to scream in rage, stern enough to disturb the status-quo of a constitutional and democratic polity in the form of a Tebhaga or Naxalbari movement. His possibilities of self-representation within constitutional configurations are almost untraceable; it is only through a recourse to furious ‘unconstitutional’ means that the peasant finds possibilities of self-representation. Like the subaltern who can speak only outside the symbolic order of language, the peasant can only engage in political self-representation outside the established framework of reformative politics.
For the political elite, these endeavours of self-representation through rage and dissent, which are short-lived and are marked by a plebian desire to unmake, often ‘lacks’ a political vision that is farsighted and constructivist in spirit. Hence, it is essential to politically educate the peasant – a process that can only ensue when the peasants subject themselves unconditionally to the leadership of the elite intelligentsia. Peasant participation in mainstream Politics is only rendered possible through a subservience to the ideology of the elite. This elitist presumptions about the peasant’s lack of a political vision, as Partha Chatterjee’s elucidations on the position of the peasant in the political history of Indian Freedom Struggle reveals, is a typically historic symptom. Chatterjee points out, “While the nationalist leadership sought to mobilize the peasantry as an anti-colonial force in its project of establishing a nation-state, it was ever distrustful of the consequences of agitational politics among the peasants, suspicious of their supposed ignorance and backward consciousness, careful to keep their participation limited to the forms of bourgeoisie representative politics in which peasants would be regarded as a part of the nation but distanced from the institutions of the State” (Nation 160). Hence, for Nationalist organizations dominated by an urban-bred elite leadership, the peasantry was an “object of their strategies”, with no agency or consciousness of their own, who could only act as instruments or means to satisfy the conceived political design. The peasant lacked the political wisdom to conceive; he had to be guided and could never be the enfranchised and self-sustainable sovereign agency endowed with a farsighted political vision.
No wonder then that the governing elite of the electoral democracy finds it difficult to digest when farmers engage in organized constitutional modes of protest against the Farm Bills which have been introduced to secure the ‘welfare’ of Agrarian communities. As peasants flock to the capital city, in protest of the recently passed “Farmers’ Bill”, the historic symptom relapses again. Elected representatives constituting the Government alleges an Opposition conspiracy and state that farmers are being ‘misled’, selected Media Houses start claiming that the peasants are being manipulated and strategically used by supposed Separatist groups to serve their factional interests. The archetypal image of peasantry as a gullible and volatile mass, lacking political insight and wisdom, who can at best serve but never lead, re-surfaces again. The persistence of such tendencies and presumptions do not merely suggest the continuity of a legacy of elitism which has been simultaneous with the conceptualization of the sovereign Nation State. More importantly, it is the premonition of a possible collapse of democracy where the elected government is apprehensive of the political wisdom of the electorate. The inverted political order where the elected/ image is suspicious of the vitality of its source, i.e., the electorate is suggestive of the twilight hour of democracy. It is the era of growing shadows and diminishing sources.
A vehement concern about the fate of democracy at an apocalyptic hour when shadows overgrow sources and start questioning the latter’s authenticity is timely, yet incomplete. Instead, a critique of government must be complemented by a critique of culture which has consistently represented the farmer as the perennially disenfranchised subject of poverty. The dissemination of such a stereotype is a possible result of the reception of realism in literary and visual medium. While it is puerile to blame Bimal Roys and Mrinal Sens for their masterpieces that have represented the miseries of the village-based agrarian social life, the stereotype loving middle class receivers of cultural production have refused to step beyond the realm of the represented. For them, the farmer is the famished face of poverty and it has stayed thus forever, even after agrarian reforms like Green Revolution have significantly problematized the systemic correspondence between poverty and peasantry. The umbrella category of peasantry today is no longer a homogeneous whole which is constituted by identical individuals possessing similar wealth and affluence. Rather, it is a stratified and heterogeneous category which includes both the big land-holder and the landless agricultural laborer (bhumihin krishak) who are hierarchically distinct from one another. To understand the contemporary farmer as the metonymy of poverty is hence true, but not always. The popular discourse in social media around the pizza-eating farmer and the contention that such images are raising questions about the authenticity of the protestors (and hence ruining the intensity of the protest) is thus grounded in such myopic presumptions that the farmer is synonymous with poverty.
While realist representation has considerably insinuated the idea of the peasant as an embodiment of poverty and an object of pity, slapstick comedies have often conceptualised the farmer as a source of laughter. In many mainstream Indian movies and other genres of performance, the farmer is a laughable jester, lacking in intelligence and sophistication. The popular comedian who runs a ‘circus’ and who has recently extended his moral support to the protesting farmers had once performed the peasant in television. Needless to say, the credibility of his performance as a farmer had deeply relied on an immaculate enactment of imperatives which enforce the already existing correspondence between peasanthood and stupidity. ‘Chasharey’ is a popular adjective used by the urban-bred Bengali and it unproblematically signifies all that is the ‘other’ of a metropolis reared intelligence and sophistication.
The possibilities of the urban elite to respond to the peasant beyond the persistent tendencies of pity and laughter has been increasingly effaced by the absence of their unbiased (hence proper) knowledge of the peasants. The peasant has mostly been made knowable to them through representation – one that is never free from the latent considerations of ideology and motive. What, under ideal circumstances, is an unmotivated medium of representation, i.e., the media, has often been starkly silent about the plight of peasants in India. Driven by a greater motive called TRP, the media (barring a few happy exceptions) barely has any interest in the everyday realities of the peasant. They are rather fond of repeating the delicacies that will constitute a pot-bellied politician’s lunch or keeping count of the number of affairs that a glamour queen has engaged in. Until there is a sensational calamity or a sublime catastrophe which demands attention, the media is happy to let the countryside live in tranquillity, in a virgin outland of civilisation that is far from the madding crowd and the spotlight of concern. It is only when the prospects of hosting the IPL 2016 fixtures at Wankhede seems bleak due to the ongoing draught that the media wakes up from slumber and takes an interest in the plight of the peasants at Maharashtra. In an interview with Kunal Kamra, Yogendra Yadav, the founding member of the Swaraj Abhiyan, pointed out that in a country where seventy percent of the population lives in villages and are associated with rural life, only four percent of the news in the National Print Media are about villages and rural life and they are mostly about accidents, natural tragedies and crime (Yadav 34:58-35:18). Such ‘incident’al reportages barely engage in an in-depth evaluation of the circumstances and conditions that are responsible for the perils that haunt the peasant. Instead, they only sensationalise the peasant’s backwatered mode of existence and reinscribe him/ her as the embodiment of non-modernity. Amidst the exuberant hurly-burly of sensationalist representation, the possibility of an authentic self-representation of the peasant is increasingly effaced.
The founding architects of Indian democracy were far-sighted enough to realise that cultural or social representation is likely to be marked by the subtle considerations of privilege and hierarchy. Hence, through the provision of Universal Adult Franchise, they had ensured to lay open the possibilities of self-representation in the realm of the political. In this, the makers of independent India had deliberately rejected the proposal put forward by the Indian Franchise Committee that the right to vote be limited to the literate or educated. By according every adult his/her right to vote, they had tried to materialise an ideal mode of governance where the rift between representation and self-representation is as minimal as possible. For an individual or mass who is/ are unsatisfied with the prevailing mode of (elected) governance and is profoundly apprehensive of its credibility and ability to represent their demands, the right to lawfully dissent is always a Constitutionally available provision. The dialogic nature of democracy presumes that refute and tension between the government constituted by elected representatives and the electorate represented is a perpetual possibility. Such refutes and epistemic conflicts between the government and the governed do not weaken but rather consolidate the ideals of democracy.
However, when the elected starts expressing their doubts about the spontaneity of an electorate’s resolute attempts at self-representation, through chronic assertions like unko bharkaya jaa raha hain (they are being misguided), the spirit of democracy stands threatened. The farmer, under the considerations of Universal Adult Franchise, is an enfranchised subject who is credible to exercise his/ her political opinion in form of vote and is a part of the electorate who seasonally self-represents through electoral representation. Hence, the elected’s conceptualisation of the electorate as a gullible mass who lack political wisdom and who can be ‘misguided’ easily is to commit the perilous sacrilege of defaming the source. It is reminiscent of the Kalidasa of fables, who had once attempted to cut the branch of a tree while sitting on the same. Such effacement of source by the image, figure by the shadow, rings the knell of democracy.
Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride and Emily Fryer. London: Pluto Press, 2008
Brown Pryor, Elizabeth. Six Encounters with Lincoln: A president Confronts Democracy and its Demons. New York: Viking, 2017.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University press, 1993.
Patwardhan, Anand. “Interview with Anand Patwardhan”. Interview by Shilpi Gulati. Sahapedia, 20th July, 2017, https://www.sahapedia.org/interview-anand-patwardhan
Urbinati, Nadia. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Yadav, Yogendra. “Shut Up Ya Kunal- Episode 11: Javed Akhtar & Yogendra Yadav”. Interview by Kunal Kamra. YouTube. 21st Feb, 2019.
Rupayan Mukherjee is a Research Scholar at the Dept. of English, University of North Bengal. He is the co-editor of Partition Literature and Cinema: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2020). Besides academic writing, he is a regular contributor to the Editorials of UttarBanga Sambad, a widely circulated Bengali daily.
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