Fashion-Setters and their Well-Honed Technology

Arun Shourie



    Before we get to explanations, consider some examples. To begin with, they seem unconnected. But only, "to begin with".

    No one in the twentieth century has done as much to rid us of untouchability than Gandhiji. He attached more importance to ridding Hinduism of this accretion than to attaining Swaraj. He brought upon himself the hostility of orthodox opinion in western India, in the South by his uncompromising stand on the matter. But the other day, speaking during the commemorative session of Parliament, Kanshi Ram asserted that abolishing untouchability was never on Gandhiji's agenda. Not one person stood up to contradict him, not one stood up to point to the record of forty years of our country's history.

    Similarly, consider what the press would have been saying and doing if some government other than one headed by a "Dalit" had spent Rs 100 Crore on a park, and contrast it with the way it reacted to Mayawati doing so. Or how it would have screamed itself hoarse if a government had used public funds to put up statues of Lord Rama, and contrast that with the silence it so studiously maintained as Mayawati used the very same funds to set up statues of Ramaswami Naicker, Ambedkar, and Lord Buddha.

    Take the project she launched towards the end of her six months. She instructed officers to hasten and give gun-licences to "Dalits", in effect to persons her party-factotums certified as ones who should have guns. Such a venture is bound to spell disaster. When Mulayam Singh comes to power, he would follow this initiative up by ordering officers to give licences to the "other backwards", that is to cohorts of his party. Thus armed, gangs of the two would swiftly plunge UP to the depths of Bihar. No divine foresight was needed to see this sequence. But the press remained completely silent.

    From personal knowledge born of his extensive travels in areas where Muslims are congregated and from his intimate acquaintance with them, in his Indian Muslims, Need for a Positive Outlook, Maulana Wahiduddin states that as a community Muslims are so much better off than they were, say at the time of Partition. He gives telling instances in support of this fact. But, he says, to acknowledge the fact in public is regarded among Muslims as betrayal of the community.

    Till the collapse of the Soviet Union, our Communist parties, and Communists secured "assistance" of all kinds from the founts in Moscow and elsewhere. From the silence they maintained, it would seem that it was mandatory for liberals to remain silent about the "assistance". Not just that. For the Communists to take "assistance" was taken to be entirely legitimate -- woe upon the one who hesitated to believe that they were doing so only for a higher cause. On the other hand, for those who were not of that persuasion to be honest was to be "puritanical", it was to make a "fetish of honesty", to make an exhibition of it.

    "I would like to review your book myself," said the editor of one of our principal newspapers. "But if I praise it, they will be after me also. I too will be called communal, high-caste and all that." "Brilliant, Arun, it was fascinating," said a leading commentator who had written a review that inclined to the positive. "But, you'll understand, I couldn't say all that in print. But it really is brilliant. How do you manage to put in this much work?"

    The very selection of reviewers tells the same story. If there is a book by a leftist, editors will be loath to give it to a person of a different point of view : "They will say, I have deliberately given it to a rightist," the editors are liable to explain. On the other hand, if it is a book by a person they have decided is a rightist, they will be loath to give it to a reviewer who also has been branded a rightist : "They will denounce me for deliberately giving the book to a person who was bound to praise it," they will bleat. Therefore, in such cases they deliberately give the book to a person who "is bound to condemn it"!

    A newspaper quotes a friend as saying, "Arun Shourie has quoted verbatim from the 5 volumes of Making of the Indian Constitution vis--vis Ambedkar. The mistake he has made is that he has selectively quoted from the book. He hasn't quoted from the part where Dr Ambedkar said that he was the chairman of the Drafting Committee but there were others like Iyer, B N Rau and T T Krishnamachri, who had helped in framing of the Constitution. This kind of selective omission and to condemn the person and take it in the context of his life is not fair..." I don't understand the latter part of the last sentence, but its obscurity may be the contribution of the correspondent. But on the main point about selective omission, and the example that is given : it so happens that the friend has actually been among the most helpful in disseminating the volume; and that particular passage he cites is reproduced in full at pages 596 and 597 of the book. Now, I have not the slightest doubt that the friend knows me well enough to know that I wouldn't do the kind of thing he has ascribed to me. I have no doubt too that he could have easily located the passage -- it is mentioned in the Index itself. "But he had to say all that so as to be able to continue to help you," explains a friend who knows us both.

    I get evidence of this compulsion to conform every day. The number of persons who have taken the trouble to reach out and tell me that I have done "the greatest possible service" to the country by exhuming the facts has been overwhelming -- among these have been persons from several political parties, as well as some very conspicuous names from among non-Mahar "Dalits" too. Indeed, it is not till the Ambedkar book came out that I got to know what the non-Mahar "Dalits" think of the idolization of Ambedkar. But all this has been in private, much of it furtive. On occasion, the very same persons -- having not just thanked me profusely for nailing the myth, but having actually purchased a substantial number of copies of the book for distribution among influentials in their state -- have denounced it in public, they have even joined in the demand that the book be banned!

    Or take the even more pervasive phenomenon. As our commentators never tire of reminding us, Party publications and a few exceptions apart, our newspapers are owned by capitalists. And yet it is these very newspapers which have for as long as anyone can remember denounced capitalism, which have for decades extolled Naxalism, which have enforced the taboo against talking the truth about the Soviet Union, about Mao's China.

    The examples seem disconnected at first sight, in fact they testify to the same phenomenon : the force of the intellectual fashion of the times. For the last half century, in India this fashion has been set by leftists. Now, this is a miracle that needs some explaining, some understanding. For on the face of it, that this lot should have been able to set the standard is a total incongruity. They had been ranged against the National Movement for most of the preceding decades. They had brazenly been proclaiming that the Soviet Union was to them "The Only Fatherland". Every forecast made by their much-vaunted "theory" had been totally belied by the course events had taken : that the rate of profit would decline in capitalist economies; that the masses would be progressively immiserised; that the capitalist economies would be convulsed by progressively more intense crises; that the toilers would get progressively organised; that they would form behind the phalanx of a Communist Party; that the exploited would then overthrow the exploiters, that the expropriators would be expropriated...

    Everything went the other way. In the end, their proclamations failed on the one test they had said was the only one that mattered -- namely, that of practice : the Soviet economies collapsed by the sheer weight of their wooden inefficiencies. But they still set the standard in India!

    The explanation consists of several layers. In spite of their record during the Independence Struggle, it is to the Macaulay-Marx class that power devolved after 1947. There were to begin with the intellectual fashions in Europe : the new rulers, Pandit Nehru in particular, were much affected by them. More than just "affected". As is well known, the Communists used to abuse Panditji day-in-and-day-out: "the running dog of Imperialism" was one of their milder epithets for him. But the more they abused him, the more, it would seem, Panditji became anxious not to fall further afoul with them. He would over-compensate in other areas. He would extend his umbrella even farther to shield and protect them. Mrs Gandhi of course had no inkling at all about theories, evidence about theories and the rest. She had adopted the progressive idiom for harvesting votes. These people had had a copyright on this kind of sloganeering. She adopted them as her natural allies, always straining to ensure that they would furnish the certificates she needed to continue to convince the poor, and groups such as the Muslims that she had their interests at heart. This anxiety, coupled with her innocence of their "theory" and its record in practice, as well as her great faith in her own ability to handle others made it that much easier for leftist operators to surround her, and occupy positions from which they could place their henchmen in vital posts -- in universities, in institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research.

    Tenure has ensured that their evil has continued after them! And that it will continue for a long time as yet. Tenure in the universities, and its counterpart in the press, the Working Journalists Act, will by themselves ensure that it is a decade and more before the grip of that fashion over what is taught, over what appears in print, over the questions and answers on which persons are adjudged for services will be loosened. So, the first set of explanations are historical, almost accidental, followed by institutional inertia. But there is more.

    There is specialization for one, and with it a technology honed over decades. While they have always talked in terms of "the masses", these people have from the beginning realized the importance of the influentials, of the fact that decisions in societies even as vast as India are taken by just a few thousands. Among these are the ones who man the apparatus of the State and the opinion-makers. Accordingly, they have always paid great attention to these groups. Often getting at one through the other : those who man the State are greatly influenced by the intellectual fashions of the day; those in the media can often be had through the patronage and information which can be doled out through the State. Paying attention to these sections might seem obvious, but other groups seem to have been taken in by the talk of "the masses" being the ones that mattered, and have not paid the attention to the influentials which these progressives have.

    The press is a ready example of their efforts, and of the skills they have acquired in this field. They have taken care to steer their members and sympathizers into journalism. And within journalism, they have paid attention to even marginal niches. Consider books. A book by one of them has but to reach a paper, and suggestions of names of persons who would be specially suitable for reviewing it follow. As I mentioned, the editor who demurs, and is inclined to send the book to a person of a different hue is made to feel guilty, to feel that he is deliberately ensuring a biased review. That selecting a person from their list may be ensuring a biased acclamation is talked out. The pressures of prevailing opinion are such, and editors so eager to evade avoidable trouble that they swiftly select one of the recommended names. This result is made all the more certain by the fact that, realizing the importance of ideas and books, progressives have made it a point over the years to have their kind fill positions which others considered marginal in journalism -- such as that of the person looking after the books-page, the one looking after the "Letters to the Editor" columns.

    You have only to scan the books pages of newspapers and magazines over the past fifty years to see what a decisive effect even this simple stratagem has had. Their persons were in vital positions in the publishing houses : and so their kind of books were the ones that got published. They then reviewed, and prescribed each other's books. On the basis of these publications and reviews they were able to get each other positions in universities and the like... Even positions in institutions which most of us would not even suspect exist were put to intense use. How many among us would know of an agency of government which determines bulk purchases of books for government and other libraries. But they do! So that if you scan the kinds of books this organization has been ordering over the years, you will find them to be almost exclusively the shades of red and pink.

    Again, you and I would not think this to be an effort of much consequence : so what if one set of publishers is given a leg-up by this agency purchasing a few hundred or even a thousand copies of some book, we would ask. But that is only because we do not know the publishing business : given the minuscule print-runs of our publishers, the fact that a publisher can be sure of selling, say, five hundred copies of one book through this network in the case of one book, and not have this assurance in the case of another book will prove decisive.

    So, their books are selected for publication. They review each other's books. Reputations are thereby built. Posts are thereby garnered. A new generation of students is weaned wearing the same pair of spectacles -- and that means yet another generation of persons in the media, yet another generation of civil servants, of teachers in universities...

    And books are but the smallest of their activities : Letters to the Editor are orchestrated in the same way. As are "analyses" : one of them asserts, "The book is nothing but the last war-cry of the twice-born". Writing in another paper, another says, "As the leading commentator... in his trenchant analysis of Shourie's latest diatribe has shown, the book is nothing but the last war-cry of the twice born..." Assertion becomes a thing established!

    In an unorganized, unsuspecting society such as ours, even these well-honed organizational maneuvers by themselves prove decisive. But in a sense, even these devices are results, not causes. After all, why is it that those who were in positions of power found this lot so useful ? Why did intellectuals gravitate to this world-view in spite of the fact that every shred of evidence showed that it had no basis at all?

    India Connect
    October 18, 1997