Comfort of echoes in a chamber

This photograph is representative of some of the thoughts expressed in the article around the futility of the approach of liberal academics and activists in responding to current socio-political challenges. It shows a round dinner table inside what appears to be a dimly lit dining room in a convention centre. The table is set out for a meal with wine glasses, knives, forks and napkins on the table, and 10 chairs around it. The table also has a jug of water, salt and pepper containers, and a couple of lit candles. To the right of the table is a French window that shows some plants and daylight outside. The window has ceiling high curtains on one side. Right behind the table is a large rectangular mirror with an ornate frame mounted on the wall. The mirror reflects a corner table lamp, chandelier and other elements of the dining room. It also reflects the author who is clicking the photograph on his mobile phone camera. There is no other human visible in the photograph. In all likelihood, the dining room will soon witness participants in a conference indulging in animated conversations over a lavish meal. In time, the room will empty out and fall silent, the conference too will draw to a close with several resolutions and promises, but little may change in relation to the problems deliberated on during the conference – all quite symbolic of the phenomenon of arguments and counter-arguments inside an echo chamber, which has little or no impact on the world outside. Photo credit: Sayan Bhattacharya

Vartanama, Aug '19
Sayan Bhattacharya points at the inefficacy of queer activisms in India in the face of larger socio-political challenges

Article 370 has been revoked in Kashmir and all essential services including hospitals and phones have been blocked there. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 has been passed by the Parliament that allows the State to tag any individual as a terrorist. And then the Amazon rainforest is burning.

Not that India’s track record on the environmental front is any better. It was ranked the fourth worst country (177 out of 180) in 2018 on the Environment Performance Index. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ordered forced evictions of one million adivasis from their native lands in forests across 16 states in the name of development.

In short, this piece can and perhaps should simply be a list of all that spells apocalypse for the planet and its inhabitants. When I was asked to write the Varta editorial this month, this is exactly what I thought. Yet, what end does spelling out the disaster again and again achieve?

One could of course immediately retort back saying that if the apocalypse is near, what’s the point in even asking about what can be achieved. However, life is still being lived in the interim. So, let’s just banish that question. There is hunger for food, sex, love. Activists lodged in jail need bail. Some protests are still saving the lives of a few trees and protests that have been going on for centuries are bringing dignity to some humans. There are children who need protection, the injured and the ill need care, and persons of every gender need jobs.

Quote: So, there’s always something worth striving for even in the midst of despair and hopelessness. This isn’t some liberal yearning for hope that concludes every other conference, seminar, lecture or book launch on disaster. Hope is simply what life is. But it’s also easier said than done. How does one live life in the interim? What constitutes, not simply a good life, but an ethical life?

So, there’s always something worth striving for even in the midst of despair and hopelessness. This isn’t some liberal yearning for hope that concludes every other conference, seminar, lecture or book launch on disaster. Hope is simply what life is. But it’s also easier said than done. How does one live life in the interim? What constitutes, not simply a good life, but an ethical life?

Philosophers and cultural studies scholars have written sometimes the most banal, and sometimes the most profound tomes on it. Of course, this question is not the domain of academics only. From filmmakers, poets, to activists to the daily passenger on the overcrowded local train could or perhaps is pondering over this question. I’ve been thinking about this question as well from time to time but a few recent encounters have made me go back to the question with some renewed urgency.

What’s common between workshops organized by Kothi non-profit groups that purport to represent rural Kothis, a film screening organized by a research university on making campuses more hospitable for transgender students, and a bunch of elite but well-meaning queer activists organizing an anniversary walk to commemorate the Supreme Court’s Section 377 verdict?

The obvious similarity is of course each of them aspires to empower LGBTIQA+ individuals. However, there is also a sad similarity. Each of them operates in their neat echo chambers where everybody agrees with everybody. In fact, where everybody competes for ‘wokest of the woke’ trophy, and at the end, everybody is pleased. The NGO becomes that one voice of the rural, the university becomes the most progressive, the walkers feel that the streets have become queer, and the funders and various donor bodies are pleased as punch with the reports.

It doesn’t matter if the Kothis who participate in the workshops have been doing so for years and know everything that’ll be discussed. Or, that the workshop content itself won’t make any immediate difference to their lives (at least, there’s lunch). Worse still, it doesn’t matter only if five Kothis attended. At least, there was a big banner announcing the workshop and countless photos for social media with accompanying self-congratulatory paragraphs in multiple languages.

It doesn’t matter if student union representatives or even students didn’t attend the screening. At least the liberal arts professors felt satisfied at being able to organize the event. Pat on the back for the category ‘academic activist’.

Then again it doesn’t matter if there’s no clarity about slogans, and the language (not just the content but also the form) of communication at the walk. There’s no pride fatigue of course so long as there is enough supply of profile pictures, aazaadi slogans, and most importantly, so long as you’ve uttered all the keywords – ‘Kashmir’, ‘sexuality’, ‘disability’, ‘transgender’, ‘Dalit’, ‘inclusion’ and so on. Speech becomes equivalent to intersectionality, no matter who gets to decide the agenda, who participates from what locations, and to what end.

Yes, this is a rant. It might almost sound pedantic but I don’t claim any outsider spot in this. This rant emerges from a sense of anger at this complete lack of imagination and this irresponsible use of resources that are already scarce in circles and communities I inhabit and work in, which brings me back to the question of ethics in times of despair and disaster.

Quote: Here’s a political system that has deep knowledge of the psyche of its opponents.     And on the other, here are we doing those same old workshops and seminars on ‘who’s a woman’ or ‘what’s queer about this or that’ with participants who know all the answers. The     big banners, consultations in swanky hotels featuring pretty folders, plastic bottles of  mineral water, notebooks of handmade paper, it’s all the same even as around the world, people have started thinking about low      carbon meetings.

As much as we abhor the right wing, how does one deny their creativity and research in everything that they do? When a superstar interviews the Prime Minister about his love for mangoes, we can laugh but the fact is this is a country that has fought wars on myths and stories. And our Prime Minister has been serving delectable stories everyday and people have been lapping up that narrative.

Here’s a political system that has deep knowledge of the psyche of its opponents. And on the other, here are we doing those same old workshops and seminars on ‘who’s a woman’ or ‘what’s queer about this or that’ with participants who know all the answers. The big banners, consultations in swanky hotels featuring pretty folders, plastic bottles of mineral water, notebooks of handmade paper . . . it’s all the same even as around the world, people have started thinking about low carbon meetings.

How many of us know the history of Article 370? But within our communities, we all know that we have to shout for aazaadi. Make no mistake. We must, but why not do it armed with facts? What stops us from critically thinking about pedagogic practices that not only cross the borders of our charmed circles but also manage to do that in a way that communicates with clarity? As much as we utter, ‘neoliberal, cis heteropatriarchal, Brahmanical State’ in our now frequent rainbow marches, how many of us actually understand the historical implications of these words?

The right wing serves its knowledge on education boards, on TV, in the many jaagrans in the neighbourhoods while we marinate in our comfortably stale wokeness. But that little marinade is fast drying up. The sores will start hurting soon. What must be our calling? How do we answer it?

Main photo credit: Sayan Bhattacharya

Author Photo

Sayan Bhattacharya

Sayan Bhattacharya likes to believe that he writes for pleasure but pursuing a PhD means that pleasure is always difficult if not impossible. He can be praised, criticized or consoled at sayanb360@gmail.com

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