By Rega Jha
March 1, 2020
Technically, this column is meant to be “apolitical”. Two, three, six years ago, that wouldn’t have been a challenge. Even a few months ago, staying away from politics felt not only possible but maybe, quietly, preferable. Safe. Easy. But this week, to be apolitical is a disorienting mandate. As you, a newspaper reader, know well, politics now has our nation in flames, our capital capitulated, our most disempowered brethren being beaten to death, our cruellest countrymen wreaking terror with impunity. Suddenly, I don’t know how, nor why, one could possibly create anything apolitical. It feels like treason. Still, it’s the task at hand.
By habit, I bring myself to write by re-reading old favourite essays, and today the one that came to mind was George Orwell’s 1946 piece, “Why I Write”. Terrible idea. Rather than offering any encouragement towards my goal — to write apolitically! — Orwell rousingly, with well-earned authority, lays down: “Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books… sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally”. Ugh. I read it two, then three, then four times.
Orwell is best known for authoring the anti-fascist novels Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, books that form millions of young people’s earliest introductions to political thought. But he himself didn’t set out to write about politics. His dream was to produce long, tragic novels, “full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their own sound”.
It was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in his early 30s that placed politics at the heart of his writerly mission, specifically to counter fascist thought and promote democratic values. “It seems to me nonsense in a period like our own,” he writes, “to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
There may be very little else that a moustachioed 43-year-old man in post-World War II Europe and a semi-permanently nightie-clad twenty-something woman in 2020 Mumbai have in common, but there’s now this: it’s starting to seem like nonsense to me too, George.
We are politicised by violence. Orwell saw the brutality from up-close, from the trenches of a war. In 2020, we don’t need to go to war to see it — the bloodshed is home-delivered. Even those of us who don’t live in northeast Delhi heard gunshots ring off our phones and TVs this past week, and we watched people die, and we saw the screaming chaos of mothers and children trying to find places to hide. Even just glowing off the tiny screens in our hands, it might be enough to nauseate and enrage us. It might be enough to irrevocably politicise us.
As Orwell remembers 1936 as the year that left him no choice but to write politically, millions of young Indians, myself included, will remember 2020 as the year we stopped being able to stomach our own political non-engagement.
Which isn’t to say we’ll stop posting selfies (we are incapable) or stop sharing memes (we are uninterested). Nor that we’ll be able to list all the MPs or become masters at psephology. Only maybe, to borrow Orwell’s understanding of ‘political purpose’, we’ll see it as part of our role in the world, in our family WhatsApp groups and with our old friends over Old Monks, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”.
This week, we’ve seen glimpses of that society too — the kind worth striving after. A Hindu man takes his pregnant neighbour, Shabana, to a hospital after she’s beaten with lathis. She delivers a baby boy. Churches and gurdwaras around Delhi open their doors to Muslims seeking shelter. Young volunteers stay up all night providing legal and medical aid, young journalists cast self-preservation aside and rush straight into the heart of danger. We saw CCTV footage of a Sikh man running out of his home and entering a mob to rescue his Muslim neighbour.
Quietly, unannounced and as-yet unseen, a whole generation of young Indians has just understood the urgency of fighting for democratic and secular values. Those preaching and practising hatred, violence, and division don’t realise it, but they’ve just galvanised their own ideological opponents. They always do. Every time they set a fire or land a blow, those of us who believe quietly and passively in secularism and democracy become less able to stay quiet or passive about it. With every life lost, we become a little less able, a little less inclined to remain apolitical.
Original Headline: 2020: The year apolitical stopped being a choice for young Indians
Source: The Times of India