Do not go Gentle into that Good Night
Like Beethoven's ‘Ode to Joy’, JNU celebrates the culture of dissent and intellectual freedom
Amit Sengupta Delhi
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies poses a dilemma, which is a strategic obsession with hate speech and xenophobia proponents camouflaged as one-dimensional, self-proclaimed nationalists. It is the demonisation of the other, the argumentative, thinking dissident, the creative subversive, and the rebel who wants to both interpret the world and change it. Across the walls in ravaged post-war, post Nazi Berlin, both the ‘capitalist’ West and the ‘communist’ East, perfected this sinister art of mass phobia wherein even the faintest critique, or the metaphysical suspicion of dissent, would appear to be ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-patriotic’, hence subject to persecution, condemnation, brutalisation, torture, imprisonment and, perhaps, a shot in the back of the head in cold blood.
So methodical and ritualistic is this pseudo consensus of witch-hunt that it becomes invisible, ritualistic, normal, patriotic, and almost desirable. Even a harmless student with his unfinished PhD thesis in his bag and in love with a girl across the Berlin wall is condemned as a foreign spy, and, thereby, turned into a helpless zero sum war game between two kinds of totalitarian regimes with little respect for either humanity, truth, or democracy, both so ideologically different, and, yet, looking like mirror images of high moral ground narcissism.
Indeed, if McCarthyism relentlessly hounded and ‘witch-hunted’ dissidents (including Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller and others) with the ‘red-under-the-bed’ syndrome in post-war US, Stalinism purged, exiled, murdered, deported to Siberian labour/death camps, and photoshopped real and mythical ‘class enemies’ into absolute elimination. A great poet disappeared, for instance, because he recited a spoofy poem on Stalin induced by alcohol. The doctrine was strikingly similar: You want to kill an idea. You kill the man/woman. Eliminate the idea. Make them disappear. Shame them and in turn polarise the nation between the motherland, and enemies of the motherland. Reduce them into caricatures and hate creatures. Brand them as public enemies of the nation. Silence all dissent. Crush protests. Hang them without a trial. All synchronised under the orchestrated guise of a manufactured ‘ism’: this or that ism. Nationalism. With a lot of help from Goebbels.
This is exactly the mass psychology of fascism which propelled the mass murder of tens of thousands in the Holocaust, even while the manufactured consensus of an entire society could carry on their happy daily life without an iota of guilt. It is like Nazi officers putting children, women, men, on the death trains to gas chambers, and, work done, returning home peacefully to share a cosy family dinner with ‘lovable’ wife and ‘adorable’ kids. Hannah Arendt called it ‘The Banality of Evil’.
Arendt wrote in The New Yorker (February 16, 1963), in the celebrated essay on the Nazi mass murderer’s trial, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ (A Reporter at Large): “Throughout the trial, Eichmann tried to clarify, mostly without success, the point in his plea of his being “in the sense of the indictment, not guilty”. The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but that he had acted out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds. As for the base motives, he was sure that he was not what he called an innerer Schweinehund — a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart — and as for his conscience, he recalled perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do — to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and most meticulous care. This last statement, admittedly, was hard to take. Half-a-dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal”. “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that Eichmann’s whole psychological outlook, including his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable”.
For both, a failed, fake, megalomaniac leader, or a manufactured superman posing as prophet, demi-god, event manager and messiah, the pseudo enactment of hyper-nationalism is a handy tool, especially in India where hysterical shouting matches, with not an iota of regard for media ethics or objectivity, dominate the so crudely enacted cacophonic prime time television, posing as ‘news’. The Gospel according to Saint Goswami. Every night becomes a crass Kangaroo Court, almost like the public spectacle of beheading by the ISIS, with live ‘streaming’ and a running Caliphatic commentary on social media. Or, like the embedded journalism of ‘live’ TV footage of a video game of war and occupation on Murdoch’s channels, even as the US pounded Saddam’s Iraq on the fake mass phobia of mythical WMDs.
This is exactly what they did in contemporary India, albeit with newer innovations — declare a war on students. FTII students, Dalit students, Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and others, the Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University, and the entire JNU community, time-past, time-present, time-future. No one was spared in this daily ethnic cleansing on TV.
The perverse angels of fascism erected a ‘Bridge of Spies’ whereby all who were not with them were ‘smoked out’ as ‘anti-nationals’, almost like terrorists and suicide bombers. No evidence required. No alternative versions. Not even basic fact-checking. Sedition, lies and doctored videotapes worked in super synthesis with party propagandists posing as anchors, dumping every 5W and 1H of journalism into the garbage can of history.
And yet, they fell flat with egg on their face. Every lie was nailed. Every doctored slogan was proved wrong. Every fake speech was proved as a fake speech. Indeed, all they had finally were lies, police repression, lawyer goons, mob violence and hate speeches. The disarmed, non-violent students had nothing but arguments, resilience, resistance and truth.
Open-air nationalism classes by brilliant minds from India and abroad, streamed ‘live’ across the globe, even as students, teachers, scientists, artists and writers from across the finest academic campuses all over the world, wrote postcards celebrating love, dissent, intellectual freedom, debate and discussion. The students destroyed the daily banality of evil with their young, beautiful, uncluttered, pure, pluralist, classical minds. And the world heard it. Like Beethoven's Ode to Joy on the public loudspeaker in the mass hunger strike of students at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 1989, when the tanks came rolling in. Remember that solitary man standing alone, facing a row of tanks?
Surely, India is not totalitarian China. India is not even the Gujarat model, fake or otherwise. JNU students are not stupid: they did not shout ‘Pakistan zindabad’. They shouted the slogans of azadi, clearly and loudly, with Kanhaiya’s leadership, with Shehla Rashid Shora’s leadership, with their collective, democratic leadership. Azadi: from hunger, casteism, racism, sexism, patriarchy, communalism, capitalism, unfreedom. War. Hate politics. Xenophobia.
The slogans caught like wildfire in the creative imagination of the youth. Songs that expressed their call for a more egalitarian society fused together with New Age beats; they carved an aesthetic niche in the playlists of our phones and mp3 players. A professor from London sent a message that she finds it ironical that she can’t sleep without listening to Punjabi musician Dub Sharma’s remix of Kanhaiya’s azadi speech. He sang an old folk: ‘Rust will eat your cage, the bird will fly away.’
This island-campus is not an island. It celebrates the adventure of ideas, the kaleidoscope of dissent, the multiple colours of a luminescent rainbow. Students here are not violent. They are argumentative. You can see their faces, enlightened, ecstatic, in rage and outrage, in song and dance. In eclectic unision in that collective chant which echoes and flies on the wings of passion and resistance across the shadows of the full moon in this sublime nocturnal landscape, like an ancient Gregorian rhapsody: JNU…JNU…JNU.
I tell you, JNU is special.