Writing as a mode of Activism: Do the structures listen?

“I will tell you this, I may be dead, but my ideas will surely not die.”

        – Saro-Wiwa, Ogoni-Nigerian Writer speaking to the tribunal that sent him to the gallows

I grew up in the milieu of post liberalization middle class India and the diaspora in the Gulf resembling  a similar socio-economic sentiment, which held the socialist ideals in great contempt as the economic ideals then were of the emerging Asian Tigers. The downfall of Calcutta from an industrial powerhouse to a pale former shadow, due to the policies of Left Activism such as ‘Hartals’ (Public Strikes) and a poor work culture; framed activism, and speaking for the margins pretty passé. I grew up in a household filled with Marx and Engels and ‘Das Capital’ being a prominent feature in our house library in Navi Mumbai. We did not have fancy couture furniture, but we surely had Marx.

Activism was framed in the 1990’s Star News and India Today fed discourse as a relic of pasts economic sins.  Activism was the forte of the chic ‘jholawala’ the well-heeled latte drinking intellectual usually a product of the famed Jawaharlal Nehru University, Presidency or a Tata Institute of Social Sciences with an Oxbridge or Ivy League degree. The other extreme was the grassroots activist working in the rural hinterland in India, with demonstrable sympathies towards the left.  This was ‘India Unbound’ in the words of Philosopher-CEO Gurcharan Das, as the IT/Engineering Major-MBA combo educated urbane Indian was out to seek his pot of gold (Humanities Majors in India simply do not make the mention even). The Infosys-HCL success story was shamelessly circulated a number of times.

The poor, marginalised Indian was not sexy enough for primetime news. ‘India Shining’ failure ushered in Left supported socialist politics of the Congress for a decade. More than secular progressive politics, graft and slow development dominated the discourse. It was known as the ‘missed decade’ by the TV Studio commentators. This was the decade that supposedly would have brought India in touching distance of China. We had a ‘Harvard Man’ in office, in the words of the most influential global justice activist and writer of our generation Arundhati Roy. Yet, unbridled greed filled orgy of graft derailed a government which had some good social welfare programs on ground such as MNREGA and Public Health initiatives which this Modi regime is dismantling in favour of private sector involvement, as Dalal Street dons wield influence rather than the aganwadi worker in rural Ratnagiri. Activists of all color as represented by the corporate media as road blocks towards the utopia of late capitalism. People displaced and killed by riots or by mega projects are simply footnotes in a report, gathering dust in a ‘sarkari’ office.

No one will scream ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ for the invisible Indian who cannot buy a share for a blue chip. Activism is not aspirational, the 42 inch flat screen TV in the living room is.

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Activism and writing are connected with the common bond of language. The limitations of language is the limits of our imagination in the words of Wittgenstein.

The English educated elite dominate structures of power. I am one of them. English is not a language in India, but a ‘Class’. English has the appeal of connecting the average middle class Indian to the global circuit of capitalism. The IIT’s and IIM’s have their content taught in English and not in the vernacular languages. English bequeathed by our former colonial masters, has helped the South Asian diaspora to be enormously successful. We have had a rich literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Chetan Bhagat, the enormously commercial writer in English, has brought ‘Ingris’ to the first generated educated in India. He has democratized reading in English to the masses, however pop culture it might be.

But, the chasm between India and ‘Bharat’ is accentuated by the access to the English Language as well. English perpetuates an elitism driven by language, and removes the Lutyens Delhi elite from the conversation on the ground in Satara or Purulia.  There is a positive in knowing English as it gives the writer the access to engage the world.

How many vernacular translations do we read?

English has enabled us to converse with global commercial and political elite and sometimes challenge them. Access to the language has been us the cultural resources to challenge dominant thought processes of the times. Aruna Roy, Yogendra Yadav, Harsh Mander and Medha Patkar all speak in English to engage with the wider world with the stories of struggle and resistance and build solidarity with the movements of the global south.  Many an underground Naxalite leader has been known to be well-versed in English. Power is reinforced and circulated through the language, and writers have used this weapon to challenge the present, in the hope of a better future.

Does the knowledge of English alienate the urban Indian from having the consciousness of the marginalised?

Lobbying for social change, unfortunately needs the lexicon of resistance, and English is unfortunately the Lingua Franca for achieving this end. Ambedkar encouraged his followers to learn English as a tool to beat caste oppression. The language of the ruling class is not oppressive and emancipatory at the same time as it depends on the context. The subaltern who are erased from the mainstream discourse, often are erased due to the inability of communicating in the language of power. Writers although guilty of the ‘politics of representation’ in text, lend a voice to the silenced and this is the essence of activism; speaking up when all others are muted.

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Writing as a form of activism enables the helpless soul to speak to the structures of power, even if it does not listen. Rob Nixon in his seminal environmental justice work ‘Slow Violence’ writes

“In one of his final letters from detention, Saro-Wiwa assured his friend, the novelist William Boyd: “There’s no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I’ll have to bear the pain of the moment. . . . the most important thing for me is that I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it. . . . I think I have the moral victory.” “

Saro-Wiwa used his writing as a strategic tool to voice out the oppression that his Ogoni micro minority faced in the oil rich delta region in Nigeria. The oppressors were the state and multinational companies in his words. He faced the gallows as he used his writing as a tool for activism. The gallows did not silence his ideas of fermenting resistance. Silencing a writers voice, amplifies his message, and this creates the resistance he ultimately wishes to generate against the military dictatorship and the transnational oil corporation bed fellows, which have laid the delta region polluted and bereft of its natural ecosystem. Saro-Wiwa utilized his writing to force the structures to listen to him. Activism needed guts, which he had in ample measure. His death brought the focus on the oppression, which was the ultimate oppression in it itself.

His writing succeeded. Arundhati Roy in our times speaks against the ‘Upper Caste Hindu Corporate State’ that is India and sometimes speaks to Ed Snowden in Moscow regarding the Anti Imperialism Project, which she has so successfully written and spoken earlier. Her voice brings the global lens on anti-minority and anti-poor projects in India in a space where it is a rare flicker of hope.

Writing becomes impactful with guts. Activism is all about guts and intellect, hence writing and activism are good bed fellows.


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