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Sing like an Urban Naxal

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By Shiv Visvanathan

The other day, I heard a piece of song, muttered like an irreverent doggerel, with a lovely beat. It was edgy, irreverent, but it captured a whiff of the freedom we miss today, the ease of dissent that the gravitas of editorials cannot capture.


It went a bit like this: “I am an Urban Naxal, that is me./ Don’t you see,/ The state has no love for you and me/ Because I am an Urban Naxal./ Delight-full-ee/ I am diversity’s child,/ Growing wild,/ A bungee jumper of the mind,/ Leaving conformity far behind./ I am an Urban Naxal./ I love the forest and the city,/ But it is such a pity/ The government has no place in smart city/ For you and me./ They call me anti-national and full of hate/ Because they think I am anti-state,/ But I must confess till due date/ All I asked/ Was a piece of land/ And a land of peace./ But government will never cease./ I am Suren, I am Sudha./ I am Ram (Guha), I am Krishna (T.M)./ I am Gandhi, I am Nehru./ An Urban Naxal that is me./ Welcome to the land of the free.”

I want to thank that nameless student whose body danced the language of freedom. He was singing bhajans of the mind. His song made sense and it also captured that sense that we often respond to dissent too seriously. We summon ideology to combat ideologically, reducing debate to the level the state wants it to be. The singer and his song refused to play the opposition game, capturing the sense of freedom that dissent entails. The student’s vision must embody the spirit of any response to the label/libel of ‘Urban Naxal’.

Linguistically the word is a clever one. It hides the art of scapegoating, the ritual of witch hunting by sanitising the word into a disease. What the song celebrates is dissent as a grammar of diversity. The word seeks to destroy that world, reworking the margins, the minorities, the pluralism of dissent into one curse word: Urban Naxal. It creates a climate of suspicion which hides the fact that it is an invented word and a constructed world. The state is free to provide the list. It calls for no proof, no fact. All it involves is a pigeonholing of names, which immediately leads to imprisonment, even mob violence. The irony is that each one of the names listed is a crusader for freedom. Freedom and the dream of freedom are distorted into a false utopia of unfreedom. Careers, lives, biographies devoted to freedom are suddenly sentenced to disloyalty. Even McCarthyism could not do a better job. It is as if a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) consultant has combined Joseph McCarthy and George Orwell, the stigma and the witch hunt, to achieve this sophisticated mechanics of labelling. A label becomes a life sentence from which there is no reprieve.

There is a slickness, a sophistication in the label ‘Urban Naxal’ that the earlier charge, pseudo-secular, does not have. The latter has a heaviness of tone, resembling a clerk’s caricature. ‘Urban Naxal’ has the deviousness and maliciousness of a crafty advertisement. It is an all-embracing term which can be stuck on anyone, a writer, a dissenter, a tribal, a trade unionist. There are no objective features. You become objectified by being labelled. The act of enclosure begins after the act of labelling. The act of labelling creates a panopticon under state supervision. Years of idealism, political and ethical struggles get reified into the word, which evokes the logic of anti-national. It is a RSS distortion of the MeToo movement. If MeToo was an act of pain giving a voice of suffering, the state summons an epidemic of names and crucifies them, not appealing to history like MeToo but rewriting history and biography.

Look at the list, T.M. Krishna, Ramachandra Guha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha. One feels honoured to be a part of this group because it sounds like an honours list of dissent and creativity and not a litany of threats.

Take the case of T.M. Krishna, among the latest intellectuals to be named Urban Naxal. He is one of our organic intellectuals, a musician deeply soaked in the culture of Carnatic music, deeply committed to democratising music by going beyond its Brahminic roots. A man who has emphasised, like A.R. Rahman, the syncretic nature of music, be it a bhajan, a ghazal or a carol. He owns up to all by celebrating all, without overplaying the individuality of any. He is a pilgrim through the worlds of music, who understands that every encounter with difference adds to the richness of identity and creativity.

But he is not a fighter for the creativity and diversity of music alone. He wants to extend his sense of music to ecology, and reads nature like music as a commons, accessible to the creativity of all. He does this by showing that a return to the fundamentals is the best challenge to the threat of fundamentalism, using the plurality of the Bhakti music. To accuse such a classical, democratically inclined mind of Urban Naxalism, forcing boycotts and threats on his performance, is obscene.
Urban Naxalism as a label strikes at the root of dissent and creativity. We face a government which wants patriotism, music, culture to march in uniform and utter the language of uniformity. The label Urban Naxalism as a tactic seeks as anti-national what is one of the most powerful pleas for freedom and diversity. It is this prospect of freedom and diversity that the label proscribes.

But the tragedy does not cease there. The danger lies in the shrewdness of the state propaganda, in its ability to name some of the country’s finest intellectuals as threats to security, as devaluers of democracy and culture. The power of propaganda seeks to destroy the creativity of civil society. An officially invented word destroys several plural worlds. One has to recognise that Urban Naxal as a label stigmatises all of them, threatening the world they create.

One has to see this labelling strategy in tandem with the other strategies of the Bharatiya Janata Party. As an acute observer put it, the ham-handedness of party President Amit Shah threatening the Supreme Court over Sabarimala, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat demanding Ram Mandir, and the subtleties of labelling are but diverse tactics in one game of intellectual and political control. Each uses majoritarianism as a tactic to create a uniformity of thought and thought control before election time. All seek to subjugate civil society, creating or imposing a substrate of conformity. The real crime of the so-called Urban Naxal is his lack of conformity, his ability to challenge the crowd and the mob, to stand up to coercive words such as security, patriotism, border. The Urban Naxal seeks to liberate language and thought for democracy. He is the citizen of the future.

(The Hindu)