Today's Editorial

24 February 2017

Truth lies and videotape


Source: By Ruchir Joshi: The Telegraph


Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that we've always been living in a 'non- truth' world, with the occasional surge of 'fact- connected truth' barging in. It may even be more precise to say that different sections of society, the world over, have lived at different levels of 'fact' and 'truth' since time immemorial.

For centuries, rural areas all over the world were self- contained bubbles, occasionally penetrated by different outside truths and facts, whether in the shape of natural disasters or invasions. As the world became more connected, as information became more widely available, as the means of disseminating it became more mechanized — and, nominally, more equitable — an idea coalesced that human civilization was, finally, moving away from superstition, baseless beliefs and rituals to a new world ruled by rationality and science and the supposed corollary of those two, this notion called humanism.

We know, of course, that with human beings things are never that simple. As we know, the Enlightenment that developed in Europe was a triple- edged sword, or perhaps, to really stretch the weapon metaphor, a cluster bomb carrying a mix of sharp objects, both good and bad. On the one hand, Enlightenment brought us an extensive articulation of human rights, models of adult franchise, progress in medicine, the establishment of healthcare systems and so on; on the other hand, for the longest time, this Enlightenment seemed chiefly to be reserved for the people who'd first thought of it, with the 'lesser breeds', the conquered non- Europeans, the enslaved ones, the colonized ones, the ones labelled 'savage', all being denied the privilege of being treated on equal terms; on yet another hand, this very same Enlightenment was used as a justification by the colonial powers, which varnished their rape and robbery with the veneer of 'bringing civilization' to the subjects of empire.

History, as ever, played its complex games, and this Enlightenment, coupled with other, non- European, systems of justice and fairness ( not always acknowledged), ushered us into the 20th century. But just because human beings are capable of being rational doesn't mean they like being rational. One great proof of this was the madness that gripped Europe — the birthplace of the Enlightenment — in the shape of the First World War.

If some self- serving sanity ruled for a period after that mass slaughter, it was radically overturned after just two short decades with the start of the Second World War. Across the turbulence of time, it's useful to remember that before Joseph Goebbels, well before the Soviet and American propaganda machines, there was the whole post- truth or non- truth of ideology and misinformation that fuelled the mass butchery between 1914 and 1918.

When M. K. Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was already well bruised and hardened by the bullying lies of the white supremacists in South Africa as well as by the gross cruelty of imperialism that depends on these lies for a moral alibi. While others have understood intellectually that empire generally operates in similar ways the world over, MKG understood the kinship between South Africa and the British raj viscerally.

In South Africa, he had made up methods of resistance, experimenting, trying and failing before succeeding partially, often unexpectedly. Returning here, he developed this admixture of rationality and irrationality. There are two contradictory things Gandhi counted on throughout the rest of his life: the huge ' irrational' religiosity of the Indian masses and the completely rational and relentless spread of information that the growing international press provided him.

In other words, he mobilized a mass, including a rural population, that had forever lived in a post- truth or non- truth time, and unfurled that mobilization before the witnessing eyes of that segment of the world which was widening its definition of Enlightenment, of justice, of humanity and the ( quite rational) notion that all humans are created equal. Faced with the most monumental system of 'non- truths' and ' alternative facts' the world had seen, Gandhi deployed the insistence of truth.

Crucially, Gandhi welded this notion of satyagraha to the principle of non- violence. At a deep spiritual level, whether of Christianity, Vaishnavism, Jainism or Buddhism, he was both right and correct in saying that doing violence to another being should be abhorrent to a god- fearing human being, that you should not do unto others what you do not wish to have done to you. However, he was also spot on in terms of rational strategy: every perpetrator of violence has a story, a narrative of self- justification, whether public or secret, just for himself; every act of counter- violence, of revenge, retaliation or ' pre- emptive strike', likewise, comes with a counter- narrative; in this messy war of narratives, it's supremely easy, nay absolutely necessary , to create a non- truth, a post- truth, a cascade of ' alternative facts'; the only way to de- fang an opponent, who is superiorly equipped both in arms and in the means of creating and propagating a supporting narrative, is to give him little opportunity to use his arms, to give him as little fuel as possible for powering his narrative.

Gandhi declared his principles to be eternal, but he chose his strategies in the context of his time. Mass mobilization for swaraj began at a time when there was no radio, and when telephones were rare, but it could not have happened before the telegraph system or the rail network were put in place in India — the communications for organizing depended hugely on these two things.

The radio network, even as it spread, was controlled entirely by the State. However the press was a different matter, as were the radio networks of other powerful countries which broadcast different news from what All India Radio let through. There were various other factors, such as the independence not only of the British press but also of the newly formed BBC, and there were elements of chance and luck, just as there were huge mistakes and miscalculations before we finally arrived at Independence.

Now, how does one contemplate non- violent resistance in the age of Modi and Trump? At a time when the notions of a free press and unfettered media are under attack from so many different directions? How do you answer the argument that says 'when Gandhi fasted he made front- page news, but today when an adivasi or someone from the Northeast fasts the media ignores them?' Well, for one, it's not a good idea to take up arms just because an ambush with AK- 47s makes for sexier headlines.

Likewise, if Trump or one of his vile associates advocates opening fire on unarmed protesters, it's crucial that the protesters be really unarmed, the odd handgun going off towards the police will not help shut down machine guns and armoured cars. If the people in power in this country keep buying up the news groups while simultaneously attacking contrary reporters as presstitutes, we will need to have some answers that are out of the box and outside mainstream media.

In the meantime, it's good to remember that what the press and TV say does have an effect — there is a reason why every politician in power gets highly incensed by what is carried in the vernacular press and channels, even as they blithely ignore what the English language press says. Equally, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that across the history of the last hundred- odd year’s truth and alternative truth, facts and anti- facts, have always been seesawing in conflict. We may be at a new bend in the river of history but our fore bearers have traversed a lot of similar topography.