Reflections on a Twitter tu tu main main

In an occasional article in this newspaper (GK, Sunday, 26th April, 2020), I did a semiotic analysis of one of its news reports. To give credit where it is due, not many newspapers would publish, on its editorial pages, a comment on its own news operations. Arguing that there is much more to news than the text and the visuals, it suggested that GK’s news selection and display revealed, or perhaps reflected, the extant and emerging political state of play in Kashmir.

When a response to it reached the social media, twitter gave it a new form, quite unrelated to the original and it morphed into a distant cousin of its own!

The exchanges, if you can call them that, on social media are of course, between people, but they are more about positions, and perceptions. Bred in silos, a point of view propagated in an echo chamber, results in the same voices being heard repeatedly. Now a days, they meet in the toxic environment of twitter. And then the trolls take over!

 Time to move beyond the polemics. While obviously this essay is referenced to the twitter spat, it seeks to raise some broader questions that are uncomfortable yet important. The idea is not to be accusatory and castigate but to start an introspective conversation; conversations with self, as a friend of mine suggested I ought to have.  

 Using the shoot and scoot platform of twitter to comment on my write up, a Professor who is a sanctified intellectual, prefaced a substantive point with a pejorative: “Someone tell this half backed mind that Arabic and Persian is a part of our Islamic culture DNA along with Urdu and not alien like Hindi”. I will address the issues underlying the personal comment first. In the second part of the essay, appearing tomorrow, I shall deal with the substantive point.  

 Irked by the unwarranted personal comment presumably based on a second hand understanding of what I had written, I responded in the same vein. I tweeted, “And here is a brain so perfectly baked that it preaches secession from 5 pm to 10 am quoting Gramsci (pronouncing it Grahamski) yet works for a civil society institution controlled by “occupational forces” helping produce compradors! PS: the phrase is half baked, not “backed”. 

Let me frame the context of the point I was trying to make in the tweet, beyond the repartee. The sub-text of my tweet was to question the moral and intellectual integrity of those espousing secession, even as they, in their professional capacities, work all their life, manufacturing consent in favour of what they oppose. How can those people from our society lionise separatism when all along they have, side by side, been helping what they call “India’s hegemony over Kashmir”? Am I accusing them of being “Indian agents”? No, of course not. That would be puerile, though possible.

It is all very well to bring to bear intellectual giants like Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said or Noam Chomsky in support. But do we internalise them to discern the implications of what we lean on them for; be it in the form of political constructs or as theoretical frameworks. Or is it only as a rhetorical tool for reconciling and rationalising, if not justifying, the death and destruction all around us in the Valley?

 Gramsci, for instance, has consistently argued that colonisers operate and exercise control through institutions of civil society, foremost among then being the educational institutions; school, colleges and universities which are normally seen as non-political. If indeed, it is so, then isn’t working for the university tantamount to being a part of what the resistance intellectuals call the “apparatus of hegemony of the colonisers”? 

If one works for three decades in the University, then one has been an intrinsic  part of what Gramsci calls, “the process of moral and intellectual leadership through which the “dominated” or “colonised” consent to their own domination by ruling classes, as opposed to being simply coerced by the army and the military”.

From his perspective, universities are stronger and more integral to domination than the State’s coercive apparatus like police and army. He writes, “When the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”. Clearly, he saw the police and army as the outer trench and schools and universities as the real powerful fortress! So while many of us may have worked in the “trenches”, many others have spent their entire life in the “fortress”.

Indeed, Gramsci’s main thesis is that “the most important State activity is applying educative pressure to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration.  No wonder, then, after being “taught” in the University, the one avenue and only aspiration of most youngsters is a government job. Ever thought of that? 

For those who will think that this is far-fetched and remote from reality, I refer to Edward Said’s book “Culture and Imperialism”, where he discusses the pre-imperialist novels of Jane Austen, generally not considered to have an overtly colonial theme or any political overtones. Said has demonstrated how Austen humanised the repressive colonial ideology making it “coexist alongside the devaluation of colonized cultures”. And to bring home the point, unsuspecting students of our University have been taught Austen for years. She isn’t only about “marriage is on the horizon”, if you know what I mean!

 To unravel the unseen and unstated mechanics of how it operates, I can do no better than point in the direction of Gauri Vishwanathan’s brilliant work, evocatively titled, “Masks of Conquest”. It lays bare how educative practices, particularly those of literary studies, are used to establish “hegemony in a colonial setting”. Vishwanathan demonstrates how literary studies are used “to strengthen cultural hegemony in enormously complex ways”. It is fascinating to see her unravel, how the teaching of literature was intimately linked to the consolidation and maintenance of British rule in India.

Are people so naive as to not see what they are doing? Do they contribute willingly or unwittingly to the designs of those whom they castigate in echo chambers as “hegemonic occupational forces”? How can they not see that within their own political framework, at the level of their own personal self, they are “aiding the process of moral and ethical formation of colonised minds” in Kashmir? This is a sure recipe for ideological schizophrenia. Try and reconcile youngsters rooting for Azadi one day and queuing up for recruitments into security forces the next day.

While all this is happening unknown and unseen, the public positions of such intellectual activists radicalises the young minds. Their point of view has credibility, by virtue of a position that they hold in the civil society super structure. While it may not be devious by intent, it is for sure dangerous in its implications. In fact, I would say, criminal. Spare a thought. Death of youngsters has ceased to be a personal loss; it has been made a political issue. Indeed, death has lost its real significance and has gained symbolic connotations. 

Tragically, the framework of hegemony has become so ingrained in their minds that they are themselves being hegemonic. The visceral reaction to any alternative thought that is articulated is a consequence of this. Their focus is not to debate but disparagingly debase the person; not the argument or viewpoint. A classic trait of hegemony, as Gramsci, points out. In our context, it amounts to what Naguib Mahfouz refers to as “sectarian sedition”; divisive and detrimental.

(To be concluded tomorrow)