Rabble-Rousing: How Effective, How Moral?

There was almost a spectacular turnout when Arundhati Roy spoke in Chennai recently.  People from far away towns and cities had arranged special buses to make it.  Roy is certainly attracting similar crowds elsewhere too.

As an admirer, I am also heartened that in these days of crass self-indulgence, those like her should be attracting such large audiences. But her increasing zealotry leaves one disturbed.

 Yes, reasoned arguments alone can’t lead to a revolution perhaps. Taking some liberty with facts and glossing over inconvenient areas are all par for the course, especially when it comes to leaders mobilizing people.  Even then there are limits, one would imagine. Any unrestrained hype could lead to total loss of credibility.

 So what do you make of someone like Roy who would not say anything about the all too obvious excesses of those who are fighting the state in the name of the people.  Or is it all collateral damage?

 Will such a line sell among the middle classes – whom she is addressing after all?

 Indeed, should those looking for social change bother too very much about the self-absorbed  middle classes? Anyhow they have shown themselves to be counterrevolutionary time and again.  What we are doing is only telling them, ‘Get lost, we know you. We’re telling you all this only to make you understand that we know your game. Without you, despite you, we will….”

 We’re trying to somehow reach out to the large masses who might get to hear. And they are the people to depend upon for any meaningful action. Once they know there are many outside their class standing by them, they would feel emboldened.

 If such indeed is the case, credibility shouldn’t matter one bit.  Fire, brimstone, the more strident the better. So long as you are speaking up for the oppressed, that’s fine.

 Nearly two decades ago, there was this colloquium on Periyar. Speaker after speaker waxed eloquent on the greatness of the man, how he had answers for any and every problem we were encountering, his disciples might have gone astray, still… you see, the blunders of communist parties did not necessarily invalidate Marxism and so on.

 It was becoming quite suffocating, it was uncritical adulation, I thought. I intervened to say, “It’s one thing to say Periyar had thought of this, this and this, his position was quite radical, whether caste or women. But I don’t think we should cover up his commissions and omissions. Leave alone the various contradictions in him, right before his eyes his own cadres were treating their womenfolk as chattel, did he really pull up anyone, did he check out how his followers were implementing his commandments? For all his glib talk of the situation of the Scheduled Castes, did he intervene to see that Dalits  got a fair deal? His stance on Keezhavenmani was outrageous. And, worse,  Karunanidhi was running amok, but he didn’t say a word against him till the very end…My point is if we don’t admit such problem areas even while holding up his example on various counts, we’ll lose credibility…”

 Promptly a passionate Periyarist there interjected, “Who’s this we?.” There were sniggers all round. The man went on, “No, thank. We don’t need your counsel. Periyar’s thoughts are a great weapon which will help us demolish the wretched Brahminical social order…..”

 The man subsequently retreated to Middle East, looking for some inspiration there, perhaps. Some among the more vociferous that day drifted to less thundering vocations, yet others still persist with strident denunciations of anything Brahmin, Hindu, Indian. They are all interchangeable terms anyway for them. Where has it all got them? They remain on the margins of the margins of the margins of the ….

 My argument is whether it is Periyar or Communism, there are greater chances of carrying conviction if we acknowledge the failings and stress that the philosophy has a much brighter side to it for various reasons and hence should be pursued.

 There was such a groundswell of support for Marxism in the 1920’s. If George Orwell or Arthur Koestler subsequently fell out or Bertrand Russell became skeptical, it was not just because of Stalin and what was happening in the USSR alone. Communist party leaders around the world went on foolishly mouthing the Soviet propaganda, losing credibility, and thus virtually destroying all chances of gaining some acceptance at a broader level, more so in the West.

 In India where the conditions should have been far more conducive, even if not according to Marxist cannons, thanks to their contortions during the freedom struggle, readiness to fall in line with diktats from abroad and also by adopting the most opportunist policies, Communist leaders have become a laughing stock.

 A few days ago my heart sank on seeing that veteran Nallakannu by the side of M. Natarajan, the supposedly estranged husband of Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sasikala, on a Tamil nationalist platform.  How far could one allow oneself to be brought down in the name of ‘front’ compulsions.  But when the CPI has chosen to fervently support the Prabhakaranites, everyone has to fall in line.

 Not just Marxism, any kind of altruistic ideal, has few takers these days. The middle classes have different concerns. Even the oppressed are trapped in a kind of ‘Sanskiritization’ of process. What is the way out?

Material conditions apart, it is the intellectual vanguards who have a crucial role to play in any attempt at social change. And they cannot succeed if they content themselves with the role of a rabble-rouser.

 It is not as if Ramadosses alone are confronted with alliance dilemmas! Anyone seeking to forge a united front for a larger cause has to grapple with them. Time Arundhati Roys did.