Jean Paul Sartre wouldn’t last a day in today’s Indian zeitgeist. We have gone from “Don’t you know who I am?” to “I know who and what you are”. Sartre became famous for suggesting existence came first, and essence followed. Only you can decide what you are and what you want to be. Even if you are in jail, nobody can take away from you how you see yourself.
But, that was another time. Existentialism is dead. Now it seems you can no longer decide who you are and what you want to be. Other people will decide who you are by pasting a label on you. You will be assigned a role to play, whether you agree or not. You will be defined by a stereotype that is decided for you.
Basically, we have lost the freedom to decide who we are or want to be.
So, if I appreciate Prime Minister Narendra Modi for calling out to parents to discipline their sons as much as they do their daughters, I find I am suddenly a “bhakt”, which I am not. If I criticise the present government, I’m a “Pappu supporter”, which I am not. If I laugh at a self styled guru, I’m anti-Hindu, which I am not. If I disapprove of the burkha and the wham-bam speed of divorce in Islamic law, I am anti-Muslim, which I am not. If I believe men should share household chores, I am anti-men, which I am not (bless their souls). If I am against minority quotas in medical jobs, I am against Dalits, which I am not. If I support legalised prostitution, I support child trafficking, which I do not.
When a herd mentality-driven khap categorises you arbitrarily as anti-national or bhakt, Pappu supporter, presstitute, sickular, pseudo secular, you have been imprisoned. Today we are in a civilisational civil war, one that is being waged in and upon our minds. And because it is intangible it is even more destructive than bullets and bombs.
There are Twitter ninjas who take pride in their fluency of abuse and vitriol. The carnage is internal and inscrutable. Democracy does not only mean the implementation of the constitution. It means that the space in my head belongs to me alone and others, including the state, have no business invading it. Yet, we are violating each other all the time.
This is frightening because my freedom to choose my persona is stolen from me and I am assigned one by others. At best, we are left in a morass of protest, indignation and fury. Your soul is stolen from you.
The government’s psyche has pushed Indian consciousness into a collective, existential crisis. The tolerance/intolerance debate and the ‘anti-national’ fracas are aggressively invasive on individual psyches. Shah Rukh Khan’s being tells him there is some intolerance in the country. Instantly, he is informed he is anti-national. Khan’s essence is being decided collectively by a national khap. The grandson of a freedom fighter, son of a man who chose to stay in India rather than Pakistan, a businessman who is been known to be one of the few honest taxpayers in Bollywood, a man whose life decisions have been based on his affinity for his own country now finds that the essence of another persona — one that must feel totally alien to him — plastered on him. Khan is now in a Kafkaesque mental prison. Will the khap ever allow him out?
Despite the labels, categories, stereotypes and preconceived definitions flung at people, there are those who embrace these new identities as badges or uniforms to be proudly worn. Lacking inner strength in character, the fright of anonymity, the reduced sentiment of being a nobody amongst a mass of nobodies, the feeling of belonging to that this khap gives is a defined identity, one that gives a cosmetic confidence and power. It is the confidence that comes from belonging to a gang or mob. Perhaps this is a natural release in a society that has been disempowered owing to a power dynamic that is horribly elitist, feudal and classist.
The herd mentality is so powerful, it can crash stock markets and escalate consumerism. Conformity is the safest mode of action, the easiest way to preserve the herd’s power and so, we are indoctrinated early in our lives to not think differently. Our education system gives marks for only memorising data. If a student challenges the text book or the teacher, she or he is considered a troublemaker.
But is it argumentum ad populum? That’s Latin for a fallacious argument which concludes a proposition is true because many or most people believe it. If many believe so, is it really so” If Asaram Bapu has three million followers, can they all be misguided or stupid? Yes, they can. If millions around the world believe in the Immaculate Conception in Christianity, must it be true? Not necessarily. Are the 35 lakhs attending Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Yamuna-destroying circus a celebration of world culture or just dumb and selfish? .
There is huge safety in conformity, even if it is illogical. Unfortunately, conformity leads to an epidemic of mediocrity. If no new ideas are allowed or encouraged, how can we explore the zeitgeist of current philosophy? How can we create news ways to think? How will we create new design, new technology or new political systems?
If the imagination is treated like a delusional distraction from the seriousness of life, we are doomed to be stuck in stereotypical norms. If we cannot take off and away from what our forefathers left us, we will be stuck in a nation that only perpetuates the old order that buries the large mass under a small group of the privileged. It is not an accident that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reminded the Gandhi family of Ottavio Quattrocchi’s escape from Indian law when questioned about Vijay Mallya’s departure. He pointed out that the screenplay is the same, only with different actors playing the same roles. How will we reframe the future that goes beyond the old political parties if imagination is dead and we are unthinking stereotypes?
Mahatma Gandhi spin doctored a subjugated nation into thinking we could actually be independent of British rule, a radical idea at the time. Today we are being subjugated into believing we cannot be free thinkers. We are doing it to each other. If we fall for this, it’ll beat Gandhi’s spin doctoring by a long shot.