Gopal Guru in Freedom Square, JNU. Image by Special Arrangement.

Post-Truth & the Culture of Dissent in the World’s Largest Democracies

By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
-George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946

Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl, upon announcing that “post-truth” has been chosen as the word of the year, predicted: “I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.” Since the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s nomination and eventual victory, the term “post-truth” has gained major currency. Grathwohl identifies this upsurge in “the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust for facts offered up by the establishment.”

The term was used in two books in 2004: Ralph Keys’ The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, where he bares the deceptive ambiguities that have seeped into America’s cultural and political institutions, and journalist Eric Alderman’s When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, where he uses the term “post-truth political environment” to take on the Bush administration for its misleading statements after 9/11. It is noteworthy that the word “deception” occurs in both titles. The authors of the recently published article in Jacobin, “The Fallacy of Post-Truth,” have criticized the liberal emphasis on facts or factual politics being a technocratic and managerial obsession that evades the “truth” of social conflict and relegates into a “non-factual” sphere. Liberals, by deflecting the question of exploitation towards a discourse of values, may well be accused not only of disfiguring facts, but also making false claims to truth. But the authors take their one-sided judgement too far by ignoring the “fact” that a fascist onslaught against truth is not a mere advancement of liberal misrepresentation, but its antithesis. A radical assault on democratic values by a fascist regime is not a worsening of liberal pretensions but a radical distortion of social reality and ethical values. The idea of post-truth is not just related to the distortion of facts but a disregard and vulgarization of truth itself. The idea of truth as a critique of any ideological monopoly over it is our political, historical and ethical concern here. Even communist regimes have been guilty of holding a coercive monopoly over truth as much as colonial regimes have played their part. To the credit of Grathwohl, Keyes, and Alderman, they blame the Bush regime for the coming of a post-truth era. The coming of Trump accentuates the problem by its radical departure from (even the duplicities of) liberal-democratic norms. The critics of post-truth also ignore the “fact” that a political crisis of truth is marked by the widespread rise of dissent as happened in the last century.

 

Introducing Post-Truth Politics:

A good example of post-truth politics is Trump‘s invention of the deceptive sociological term “forgotten people.” Some took “forgotten people” to mean the working class. But another section of the population — white people who felt threatened by the growing number of immigrants — also considered themselves “forgotten.” The list of “others” that bothered this subset of “forgotten people” soon became very large: immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, and sexual minorities, to name a few. Using a romantic euphemism, Trump managed to invent a new category under which certain white people could vent their feelings against America’s others.

India is another country where post-truth politics currently rules the roost. The Bharatiya Janata Party regime has unleashed an unprecedented language-game that has managed to influence sections of the media, social media, and public discourse in general. It started with the nationwide debate about “intolerance,” when several writers resigned from their positions in the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters. Soon after, an unprecedented number — around 40 — writers and artists returned awards they had received from the institution. As described in public statements, their actions were triggered by growing discomfort regarding the Academy’s silence about violent attacks taking place around the country against writers. For example, Govind Pansare, a writer and member of the Communist Party of India, was killed in Mumbai on February 20, 2015, for his book on Shivaji, in which he demonstrated that the Maratha king, far from being a Muslim hater as propagated by Hindu nationalists, had Muslim generals in his army. Another writer, M.M. Kalburgi, was threatened by Hindu right-wing groups in Karnataka for his ideas that supposedly hurt Hindu sentiments, and was shot on August 30, 2015, after he gave up his security detail. In Pansare’s case, the point of contention was the truth of historical veracity. In Kalburgi’s, it was the freedom to publicly hold one’s own views on religious matters. Both were opposed by popular sentiment, and murder was ultimately used as a political tool for their elimination.

In his letter of resignation from the General Council and Executive Board, poet and critic K. Satchidanandan wrote to the Akademi’s president, “I am sorry to find that you think this is a ‘political issue’; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think, and write.” The issue was political, but Satchidanandan emphasized the space between freedom and fear. The government responded with crude frankness. The culture minister questioned the political leanings of the protesting writers, saying, “If writers are unable to write, let them first stop writing.” Notice the unbearable weight of culture behind the minister’s remark: he thought he was calling the bluff of writers feeling anxious about their safety. The callousness with which he directed them to stop writing suggests an alarming low for the government’s handling of the nation’s cultural matters.

Salman Rushdie, in a conversation with Paul Holdengräber in St. Francis College Auditorium on September 20, 2015, reiterated that “India is in the middle of a cultural emergency and the levels of repression in the cultural area should worry us as much as the political repressions of the mid 70’s emergency.” This worry appears true not only from the attacks on writers but also the shocking ministerial reproach against the writers’ protest. The finance minister, too, responded harshly to the protest on Facebook, calling it a “manufactured paper rebellion” of writers he identified as “Left or [with] Nehruvian leaning.” He accused them instead of “ideological intolerance.” He alleged these writers were recipients of “past patronage,” adhering to a politics that had lost relevance. Did the minister mean that the government was not responsible for the freedom and safety of writers with a certain ideological bent? Are these writers supposed to change their views, or disappear into oblivion under a new political regime?

Calling the country “intolerant” insulted many chest-thumping patriots, who then unleashed venomous language and accusations via the media. To further aggravate the crisis, television channels that sided with the government’s nationalist agenda attacked and lampooned those who returned their awards by questioning their integrity and, of course, their nationalism. On social media, trolls with fake profiles emerged overnight and spread the accusations like a virus. It took an enormous effort by the neutral and liberal sections of the media to counter this onslaught. Yet the nationalist media and social media campaign still proved dangerous. The tacit support through silence and ambiguous response from the regime to elements terrorizing creative freedom now found a more virulent form of support.

Another incident attached to the writers’ protest was the lynching of a 52-year-old man, Mohammad Akhlaq, by a cow vigilante group that led to his death in the Uttar Pradesh village of Dadri, where Akhlaq was accused of cooking beef at home. There is no national law against cow slaughter or the sale or consumption of beef. But in many states consumption of beef is banned. Akhlaq was accused of cow slaughter, but the meat sample found in his fridge — and lab tested — turned out to be mutton. When the Prime Minister broke his silence on the topic during an election campaign, he simply said, “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty […] Both need to fight poverty together.” There was strategic silence on the dangerous increase of cow vigilantism by Hindu groups, who spread rumors without evidence and took law in their own hands. The Prime Minister’s statement did nothing to assuage the sorrow of Akhlaq’s family or the fear among Muslims who feel threatened by cow vigilantes. It was the wrong context for showing neutrality, and it sounded hollow because the majority community had indulged in violence and was clearly at fault. And it is the state’s responsibility to alleviate poverty, not the community’s. The Prime Minister’s statement, by wearing the garb of impartiality, simply obfuscated the truth.

Keyes puts his finger on the problem when he writes in his book, “In the post-truth era we don’t just have truth and lies but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall just short of a lie. Enhanced truth it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth.” To reread the Prime Minister’s statement in the light of Keyes’ description of the post-truth era, one discovers the truth of poverty was mentioned in the wrong context: in order to hide the poverty of truth in the mindset of the government.

As another example of the politics in this post-truth age, consider Rohith Vemula, the now iconic Dalit student from Hyderabad University, who committed suicide in January 2016. The Ministry of Human Resource Development was blamed for playing a proactive role in making the university administration take action against Vemula and his fellow mates. The students were charged for protesting against the death penalty of Yakub Memon, the convict in 1993 Mumbai blasts, and for protesting against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing for disrupting the screening of a film on Muzaffarnagar riots at Delhi University. In response, the Prime Minister, addressing the convocation on Ambedkar in Lucknow, said a week later, “Reasons and politics aside, the truth is that Mother India has lost a son. I can feel the pain.” The political issue of students having the democratic right to protest what they consider unjust was sidelined. The “truth” of the matter was purely relegated to maternal loss. The misplaced sense of responsibility shown by a politically motivated Ministry of Human Resource Development was neither endorsed nor questioned. Once again certain sections of the media and social media tried to portray the issue as the tragic end to a bright, young student — and not a bright, imaginative and exceptionally sensitive Dalit scholar, thus deny thing the truth that students from underprivileged castes face victimization in premier universities.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University affair in February 2016 likewise saw India’s political culture perverted. There were charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition against students for holding a memorial meeting for the hanged Kashmiri convict, Afzal Guru, inside the university campus where allegedly “anti-India” slogans were raised. Those raising the slogans turned out to be outsiders who were never identified. But student leaders belonging to leftist organizations were quickly identified and made responsible. They were charge-sheeted and jailed until they got released on bail. The video evidence, promoted by some TV channels of their involvement in the incident, turned out to be falsely edited. It was clearly a malicious attempt to incite antagonism against the charge-sheeted students. Journalism of mischief and accusation replaced facts. Once the enemy was identified, efforts were made to feed constructed lies to the public. Truth was manufactured in the laboratory of deception. People sacrificed their credibility to serve a nationalism that was not interested in truth. Along with this theatre, the nationalist pitch stayed high, with anchors, leaders of the ruling party, and well-known personalities from civil society and the army all coming together to vent their patriotic outrage. Life-threats to these students circulated rampantly on social media. When the main accused, the president of the student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, appeared in court for the hearing, an anonymous crowd wearing lawyers’ uniforms attacked Kanhaiya. People wearing the garb of law took law into their own hands. The brilliant Hindi journalist and news anchor, Ravish Kumar, responded to this post-truth scenario in his column: “Will we in the name of nationalism let our independence be hijacked by thugs like these? What if one day these people lynch those kids in the name of saving our culture? Or what if those kids kill themselves out of that embarrassment?”

All distinctions between dissent and sedition, law and violence, patriotism and criticism, truth and untruth, and university and the policing of thought were dissolved by patriotic loudmouths in government, civil society, and the media. Lawrence Liang calmly called the bluff, clarifying that “advocating revolution, or advocating even violent overthrow of the state, does not amount to sedition…”

 

“Living within the Truth”: A Detour

Writing on the crisis in Jawaharlal Nehru University and elsewhere, Pratap Bhanu Mehta put the issue rather succinctly when he wrote in his column, “The government does not want to just crush dissent; it wants to crush thinking, as its repeated assaults on universities demonstrate.” Dissent had become nationalism’s main enemy. But the power of the idea can be seen in an absurd attempt by the hyper-nationalist Indian news anchor, Arnab Goswami, to define dissent in terms of his ambition to “go global.” Suggesting that a “neutral” media is a non-committed “fence-sitter,” Goswami, by his tirade against Pakistani artists as well as the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, showed his zeal for fencing the nation and its imagination. It was a pernicious moment announcing the post-truth era in India’s public culture.

The idea of dissent takes us back to the protest by writers and artists. It was an individually motivated, collective act of dissent, unprecedented in India’s political and cultural history. Between politics and freedom, truth and murder, how did the writers and artists see their act? The Hindi poet, Ashok Vajpeyi, who was among the writers that protested, specifically mentioned “the right to dissent.” He said if the Akademi failed to protest, writers should protest instead. The moral assertion of the right to dissent takes us back to the Prague Spring.

In October 1978, ten years after Soviet tanks rolled into the city of Prague, Václav Havel finished writing his significant essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” dedicated to the great Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka. In the essay, Havel proclaimed that a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe called “dissent.” He defined dissent memorably as “living within the truth,” which also meant a refusal to “[live] within the lie.” Standing up against the silence of a literary institution, writers and artists in India committed an act of dissent in the Havelian sense. This act of living within the truth was also a politics, where politics meant “speaking truth to power.” The origin of this phrase goes back to 1955, when the black, civil-rights activist and gay Quaker from Harlem, Bayard Rustin, wrote one of America’s most debated essays, “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.” It was a pacifist’s view on the cold war, inspired by Rustin’s deep interest in Gandhian principles.

Rustin thought “a commitment to non-violence frees men from the painful dilemma that otherwise arises whenever the demands of justice conflict with the demands of power.” Rustin, like Gandhi, saw the demand for justice simultaneously as a critique of violence. Havel’s idea of dissent as saying “no” to power — refusing to lie — coincided with Rustin’s nonviolent idea of speaking truth to power. The idea of truth was equally important to Soviet dissidents. In his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said exactly what Havel propounded eight years later: “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. ‘One word of truth outweighs the world.’” Gandhi’s world of truth and nonviolence was more complex, one in which rigorous self-examination and abstentious practices were involved. But what relates Gandhi to Rustin, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn is the political aim of his movement of satyagraha, or truth-force: “It is a fundamental problem of satyagraha that the tyrant, whom the satyagrahi seeks to resist, has power over his body and material possessions, but he can have no power over his soul.” Rustin, the figure that connects Gandhi with the dissidents, finds truth in a nonviolent response to power. For those writers and artists who returned their awards to Sahitya Akademi, their act of dissent was an act of truth against the institution. We can find the most illustrious precedence of these actions in 1919, when Tagore returned his Knighthood in protest against The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where a crowd of nonviolent protesters were fired upon by troops of the British Indian Army. In his famous letter, Tagore wrote, “[T]he very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror.” There is a deep sense of moral responsibility on the part of the poet. But the moral in Tagore’s case, as in the case of Soviet dissidents and those who returned their awards to Sahitya Akademi, is completely transformed into the political. Be it for Gandhi, Tagore, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, or those who returned their awards to Sahitya Akademi, truth was a political idea, a political weapon against power.

Havel explains the importance of legality in dissident movements by going into why the Soviet dissidents, and others after them, invoked human and civil rights: One, because dissidents are “fundamentally hostile to the notion of violent change,” as they regard the “theoretical concept” of social change as less fundamental and important than “respect for human life,” and two, because appeals to legality help expose the distinction between the “ritual, façades, and excuses” of the law and what the law guarantees. Havel’s critical point is how a political system and ideology neglects the question of life — of the “concrete human being” — by feeding us violent theories of change and “abstract political visions of the future.” To demand that laws are upheld becomes an act of living within truth by forcing the political regime to address its own excuses. To summon the law cannot be merely seen, Havel warns us, through the Marxist prism of adhering to the structure of bourgeois legalism. Dissidents evoke the law to appeal against false prosecutions, against the cheap tricks played in the name of the law. Havel is aware that the law can neither “create anything better” nor guarantee a good life, but it can help to stop things from getting worse. Dissidents summon the law to contest the false truth-claims of the political regime.

 

Resisting a Politics without Truth

Havel finds that “living within truth” holds up “the political significance of morality” in modern political history, which reinforces what Tagore, Solzhenitsyn, and the Indian writers and artists did as politico-moral acts. It appears that not only India, but many other nations, including the U.S., are going through a similar “cultural emergency.” For example, there seems to be a relation between the current nationalist regimes around the world and what Havel termed “post-totalitarian” regimes of power. He defined post-totalitarian systems as those founded on “the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society,” a society where he finds a “far-reaching adaptability to living a lie and the effortless spread of social auto-totality.” The individual “seduced” by consumer culture, Havel delineates, “has no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival.” It defines those in America who have no qualms attacking immigrants in the wake of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as those in India who don’t mind targeting people who think differently for the sake of justifying nationalist sentiments.

Nationalism is no longer mere script but scripture. Criticism has been offered a new limit: the territorial boundaries of the nation and the sentiments guarding it. Nation is higher than truth, for every truth needs a nation. Truth has lost its own power. Power no longer needs truth. Such are the equations today. You hear Ravish Kumar’s voice desperately seeking the attention of his audience, “I am worried. Do tell me, why are you afraid? Who are you afraid of? Don’t give in to the crowd. Get out a little. Out of your home and out of your fear. You should not fear the fearful.” But there is fear, fear of the absence of truth, as the new vigilante of power asserts its force upon others.

What is different now is the third element between truth and lies: a deliberate ambiguity created by the political regime and sections of the media and civil society where historical prejudices can be unleashed and translated into real violence without impunity. Perhaps the only certainty against this ambiguous darkness of truth lies in the power of dissent in all forms. Dissent is nothing more than a gesture, but one where you hear language speak with fidelity to itself.

Dissent is an incalculable force against the calculable force used by political power. During the Jawaharlal Nehru University crisis, Kumar hosted a show, blackening out the television screen, and telling his viewers in Hindi, “There is a lot of anger on the news, but barely any information. Our job is only to question those in power. Our job isn’t to stir or incite emotions.” It was an incalculable risk taken by a journalist in his attempt to make his viewers think. Sometimes, dissent can simply be a Gandhian gesture of quietly spinning the wheel. Or Bayard and his comrades in America of the 60s taking to the streets. It was recently upheld in the premises of Jawaharlal Nehru University where students and faculty members, despite one of the worst attacks against its intellectual integrity and political life, hosted open-air, public lectures on nationalism where prominent academicians critiqued the idea of the nation and defended the good name of dissent. This historic event in the life of a university reiterated that the false, post-truth battle between patriots and traitors, the idea and the necessity of truth has perhaps become more crucial than ever.

 

Header Image: Gopal Guru in Freedom Square, JNU. Image by Special Arrangement.

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