Cultural revolutions are the actual game changers
My spouse once told me that Russia failed to maintain its communism because it never underwent a cultural revolution. I’m still trying to discern the truth about this statement 25 years after the Soviet Union broke up but that is another story. The thing is, looking at the scenario unfolding in India — the alarming concerns of growing fascism with a miniscule fringe holding a country’s population hostage over its dietary habits — it’s refreshing to see historians, artists, scientists and theatre actors joining the writers protesting by returning their awards.
It’s close to what could amount as a cultural revolution. It brings to my mind the story of Rabindranath Tagore being awarded a knighthood in 1915, but resigning it in 1919 in protest against British policies in India especially the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Now very validly many critics have pointed out that the very same writers remained silent when atrocities on a huge scale were going on. But now that they have woken up from their so called slumber it wouldn’t hurt to recognise the slow and momentum-gaining revolution taking place in the largest democracy in the world.
There is a similar cultural revolution to the East and West of India — in Pakistan and Bangladesh and even in Afghanistan. Populations, sects, people, communities tired of bigotry and outright oppression are pushing back and how! Through the pen, art, music, dance, cinema, poetry, and many other art forms. Even little acts of kindness for those belonging to a different religion or culture are being trumpeted in the face of bigots to show that the might is always with the masses, if you push them too hard into a corner. The common man knows when its patience with misgovernance and communalism has broken.
30 Afghan women defying the mullahs to bury murdered and mutilated Farkunda is ‘that’ patience tried too much. The mourners at Sabeen Mahmud’s funeral are “the rationality” put into a corner by senselessness and the might of the commoner protesting back. Rafida Bonya Ahmed, wife of murdered humanist blogger Avijit Roy speaking at the Voltaire Lectures 2015 is the oppressed saying ‘enough’! Basta! Poetry lampooning the mullahs and rioting politicians, street graffiti, folk theatre and all are using the ancient methods of protest to give voice to dissent and rationality.
Will it escalate into something bigger and grip the whole subcontinent and usher in a dawn of equality, liberty and fraternity? Or will it fizzle out at the first signs of trouble like mass arrests, covert assassinations and online intimidation? My guess is it will grow larger. When people taste the absence of fear and the empowerment it brings within oneself, they seldom turn back. Now we just need to wait for the ‘Tipping Point ‘ and watch as old and traditional orders gradually give way to youth and progressive innovation.
Louise Fischer in his biography of Gandhi ‘The Life of Mahatma’ writes about asking the great man how it all started. To which Gandhi gave credit to the sleepy Motihari in the backward district of Champaran in one of the most poverty stricken provinces of India in Bihar. In those days most of arable land in the Champaran district was divided into large estates owned by Englishmen and worked by Indian tenants. The chief commercial crop was Indigo. The landlords compelled all tenants to plant 15% of their Indigo and surrender the entire Indigo harvest as rent. This was done by long term contract. The British didn’t need the Indigo crop any more when Germany had developed synthetic Indigo. Just to release the peasants from the 15% agreement they demanded compensation. Some illiterate peasants agreed but the others refused.
One of the sharecroppers named Rajkumar Shukla met Gandhi in this regard and compelled him to visit Champaran because of the long term injustice of landlords. Gandhi’s arrival and the nature of his mission spread like a wildfire. Many lawyers and peasant groups came in large numbers to support him. He managed to get justice after a yearlong battle for the peasants. But it was the passive resistance of refusing to obey an unjust law that took on the nature of Satyagraha or non -violence that actually brought the British judiciary down to their knees and released the peasants from the fear of the might of the British Empire.
That’s what cultural revolutions are all about. The quiet yet firm courage of a Rosa Parks or the dignified refusal of a Nobel Laureate to a title, it’s these small gestures that lead to a ripple effect.
Let’s wait and watch if the subcontinent unites against bigotry, misogyny, fascism, communalism and intolerance.