By Brahma Prakash

As COVID is wrecking down borders, bodies and cells, one wonders what could be the interest of a State to keep its poets, writers, journalists and activists in jail. Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, poet Varavara Rao (popularly known as VV) and anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Imam have already tested positive. We don’t know the situations of others who remain in the dark, crammed in dock, out of the news. As the State fails to fight the pandemic with its punctured health systems, it perceives the voice of conscience as more dangerous than the virus.

The India government has arrested 82-year-old poet Varavara Rao who remains in prison without trial for two years. Courts has rejected his bail plea on several occasions. But why do they have to be jailed by the State?

The blame is for the words, verses, speeches and writings. While the incarceration of VV directly implicates his poetry, the incarceration of others is also a question of poetry as long as they are in prison for their words, tongues and dissenting voices.

I take the figure of the poet to talk about the conflict between the art and the State.  What does it tell about the State and its relationship with the poets and artists?

The questions are complicated, but the answer is easy.

The State has a straight logic: “They are ‘Maoists’ and ‘terrorists’ in disguise. Instead of doing poetry, they plot to kill the prime minister! They were planning to topple the government!”

Ironies just died a thousand deaths. One who topples the government is a minister in the cabinet; one who heads it is the Home Minister of the State.

Poets and writers become the figure of terrorist mainly for two reasons. The first is rooted in the questions of truth and justice. Truth is trouble,’ says Toni Morrison, ‘It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public’. What they are facing is the problem of speaking truth to power. When they translate the tyranny of the power and the irony of the poor, they face assault. When they expose corrupt systems and corporate plunders, they face arrest. When they give meaning to the anger, they become the rioters.

The second reason lies in the conflicting relationship between the art and the State. It is the relationship: that they cannot love each other, cannot leave each other and cannot live together. Their relation is like a good marriage (of the ritual time) gone bad. And divorce is not an option. They will fight, fight, and fight to kill each other. The State for its fiefdom and art for its freedom will try to finish each other.

‘ Truth is trouble,’ says Toni Morrison, ‘It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public’.

While some of these contradictions are universally true, there are cultural specific contradictions too. Chopping of ears and trials of tongues are not new to our ‘great’ civilization. Leave the poetry, the utterance itself was a crime. Shudras’ utter a word of the Vedas and the king shall cut their tongues in twain. But what is new is democracy and republic and if our faith in institutions is still intact then, the free media and the independent judiciary?

The Image of the Urban Naxals

According to the State, they are the Urban Naxals, educated and smart with laptops and hash-tags. They can codify the revolution in three words—Overthrow the State. They arenot like their predecessors who wrote volumes of works. But one who keeps the book is also blamed. “Why he has so many books in his house, particularly on Marx and Mao,” a police officer complained to the family of VV.  This is the paradox in which the State and media present VV, Sudhir Dhawale, Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and others who are known as BK-11 (after Bhima Koregaon).  Now it is BK-12. Any day it can become BK-47 or AK-47, de-historicizing the distance between a historical memorial and a lethal weapon. The attempt is to criminalize the formation of possible assembly in Bhima Koregaon as they did in Bastar and Amritsar, Jallianwala Bagh.

They are the Urban Naxals, educated and smart with laptops and hash-tags. They can codify the revolution in three words—Overthrow the State. They are not like their predecessors who wrote volumes of works. But one who keeps the book is also blamed. “Why he has so many books in his house, particularly on Marx and Mao,” a police officer complained to the family of VV.

If we believe the statist rumour then the poet VV can codify the Maoist’s message in poems. Shoma and Sudha can hide the message in stories.  On his fingertip, Rona can encrypt the message on chips. Anand can encode them in the language of management for a global enterprise of Maoism.  From that standard, they all are poets. They all are the mastermind. They are the poet-masterminds. They can transgress the boundaries; they can reignite the words; they can reinvent the politics; they can visualize the emancipation. They fight against the fascists. The allegation says that ‘they were forming anti-fascist front.’ The power is so drunk that you don’t need to say that the State is fascist. It claims it is. The state says that they use poetry to disguise their politics. They use politics to ‘indoctrinate’ the young minds unlike the media, which hack the mind.

They also take ‘undue advantage’ of age and disease to get out of jail, alleges the NIA against the bail plea of VV. It is to be noted that he is 82 and Covid positive. He remains in jail for two years without any trial.  So, denying bail, no trial for years, torture in the cell, is part of the ‘due advantage.’

The above names are few, but there are many more, multiplying after every protest. The anti-CAA-NRC protests must have added hundreds in the list.

THEY ARE POETS without poems and Maoists without uniforms. Like the State’s Special Task Force, they are the Maoists’ plainclothes. Terrorism is the fetish that the State and media have created in the name of narratives. The narratives sells like sex and immerse like murder-thrillers. It is what Anne Applebaum says, ‘the seductive lure of authoritarianism.’

 A cab driver in Delhi shows me a picture of Sudha Bhardwaj. He tells me that she is the one who was planning to garland Modiji in the Rajiv Gandhi style. “But, you know, she does not look like a Maoist, but who knows what is right,” he said.

What a disappointment!  I felt. Mourn the anchors! Feel pity for the reality shows! 

Maoists not appearing like Maoists, a terrorist not looking like terrorists is not only a major concern for the intelligence agencies but also for the viewers who consume the violence in the name of such shows. Looking like a Maoist, seen as a terrorist, appearing like an expert is a core of the new-making. It is about an image-making, it is about belief-making, it is about consent-making. It is about taking peoples trust for a ride in the perceptual economy of the appearance in which one becomes ‘nationalists’ and other the ‘terrorists.’

It is not surprising that to make a person look like a Maoist, police and paramilitary forces in central India allegedly carry Maoist uniforms along with the arms before shooting the activists down in the ‘encounters.’  Finding four feet of a body wearing six feet of the uniform, freshly pressed, newly bought, is not uncommon. Like Covid PPE-kit, the State’s developmental-kit for Adivasis: uniform and coffin together, same size for everyone, from young to old, and gender-neutral. 

But such uniformity makes the task difficult when it comes to the Urban Naxals.  Uniform is not enough, the added presentation is needed. The State fakes the stories like bonanza sale—ten lakhs on his head and five lakhs on her dead body, fifty thousand for any clue whoever fits in the red, green and blue. 

Nobody knows who the Urban Naxals are. One who is blamed is not to be believed; one who claims is not the one.  Playwright Girish Karnad’s placard reads, “Me too, an Urban Naxal.” But we know, it is not true. It is a flaw, it is a flout, it is a ploy, it is a plot, it is a case of witch-hunting. It is about the suppression of the dissenters. It is about the conflicting relationship between the figure of the poets and the authority of the State. 

It is more crucial when the poet is a pure rebel and the State is a puritanical authoritarian. While rebellion can be observed in what Camus says, ‘in its pure state and its original complexities’, the State is an organism of domination of one class over another.

The Poet vs. the State: Face to Face

The meaning of poets in prison is less about the poet and more about the State and society. It is about the deteriorating health of democracy. It is not the poet who is on delirium; it is the democracy that is on delirium, failing to recognize its self. The poets’ fight is not against any PM or the heads of the State.  Their fight is against the moral authority of the State. The poet can ask the State, “who are you to rule over my body? Who are you to control my imagination?” “Hello! Who gave you this consent? Who gave you this right? If I have not.” 

Thus, whoever comes to power becomes the immediate enemy of the poets and artists. The poets are not only a conscientious objector but also perpetual objectors. In the eyes of the State, they are permanent trouble-makers, who even for their ishq (love) will not let the authority sleep in the night. They have to be exiled. They have to be imprisoned for the success of the authoritarianism.

Second problem for the State is that the poets cannot accept the power of morality and the certainty of the truth. Morality is a point of departure and love is the truth criteria in the journey that never ends. While the state wants to define everything, for the poets and artists, nothing is fixed. It is not surprising that Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic. It is not at all surprising that VV was put under the prison by the political regimes of all colours from Indira Gandhi to NT Ramarao. His arrest under the BJP regime only confirms the commandment and re-affirms the poetic commitment.

Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, whose many works VV has translated in prison, underlines this contradiction: A State is ‘conservative by its very nature as a State. It wants things as they are’. He underlines that art is revolutionary by its very nature as art. It is always revising itself.’[i]

The State is a State of permanency but the permanency of art is motion. Thiong’o says that ‘the State in a class society is an instrument of control’. The State strives to achieve ‘the perfection of the form of things, such as the legal system’. But like a black crow sitting on the rooftop of the court and roving over the heads of the judges, art wants to test the limits of the legal system cawing louder than what the executive drapes in the black robes. It tries to test the limits of the system. It wants to see the end of the structure.

The poet and the State are in a ceaseless fight. They fight like snake and mongoose with neck and noose, with words and bullets, with bodies and spectacles on penpoints and gunpoints. The relationship between art and the State is the case of ontological antagonism. The artists fight against the State is not because their beliefs in politics but because of the principles of the art that is in the war with the State. They take interest in politics because of the poetic and artistic calling and not necessarily because of the ‘obvious’ politics.  Though both are not so distinct, it is important to mark this distinction when State and society allege that they are not poets and artists but political activists. It is to make it clear that poets have principled reasons to be in politics and not necessarily because of the politics.

One image of such a poet is Pyotr Pavlensky, a Russian born artist who protested against President Putin. In protest, he set ablaze the doors of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian security service. But when he was given asylum in France, he set ablaze a branch of a federal bank of France based in the Place de la Bastille. He declared that bank as a symbol of modern-day tyranny.

Many times, poets and artists who participated in revolution also participated in counter-revolution. They again positioned themselves against the power of the authority and permanency of the State. They can be termed terrorists for their disgust towards the idea of the State. But there is another reason for which they can be considered as the terrorist.  Says Pavlensky, ‘if there is a scale of expression, with opera at one and terrorism at the other’, then ‘political art is closer on the scale to terrorism than to opera.’

Against the ‘state terrorism’, poets’ performative act is what Camus designates as the ‘rational terror’. It is nothing but pure claims against the State that “we are not afraid of your authority.” The role of the revolutionary poet and artists is to change the inner life of a culture. It is about what novelist Bill Gray will say, artistic imagination can make raids on human consciousness.

It is about the rejection of everyday life. Does it mean that poets and artists are fundamentally anarchist? True, to an extent but not always true. As the State wants poets to banish, the poets want the State to wither away.  The act of withering away of the State is not necessarily anarchism. It can be a condition of a high stage of corporatism or the highest stage of communism. In the first case, the actors are corporates or bhakts, in the second case, they are ‘revolutionaries’ or ‘terrorists.’ 

The tag of terrorists is about time. Portraits of the national heroes that hung in the Indian Parliament were terrorists at a point of time. A true poet would refuse to be hanged in the Parliament. Their words any time resonate against the State power.

Ask the regime, would they prefer to have the portraits of Rahat Indori or Rabidranath Tagore or Namdev Dhasal? What did Indori say: There is a power who can give you a prize/ There is a poet/ sufi who can refuse it.

Writer of this piece is Brahma Prakash, who is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. He is the author of Cultural Labour (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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Poets and artists as enemies of the State