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When questions erupt

By  G.N. Devy

The word ‘mob’ appeared on the horizon of the English language towards the end of the 17th century. Initially it worked as a synonym for so many and such diverse words that, in comparison, the ‘post-truth’ of our time should appear as an epitome of semantic lucidity. Following the French Revolution and throughout the 19th century, ‘mob’ provided articulation for the ultimate in social contempt. It took about half a century before the human side of the undifferentiated crowd started receiving attention. This happened when ‘Mobilization’ in the positive sense, as the first step towards revolutionary changes, found its place in political discourse. However, the compassionate view of mob fully emerged when ‘the mobile’, in its earliest meaning as ‘the mechanical’, came in circulation as its complementary. If mobs were human, then ‘mobile’ – though moving -was all mechanical. Even when the ‘mobile’ was not entirely intended to be a machine driven car but a work of ‘kinetic art’, it was the mechanical side that was being highlighted. Mobs and mobiles were indeed at odds throughout the 20th century, and they both remained at the heart of modern history, which is either about revolutions in which mobs played great roles or about the Industrial Revolution in which the mobile-steel was crucial. Mobility, human or machine driven, has indeed been at the heart of modernity. Mobs of the 20th century were sneeringly seen as people normally low on social or cultural memory. They were not rich, not upper-caste, nor aristocrats.

Mobiles in their mechanical purity, worked out in the furnace of the Industrial Revolution, had no memory to speak of. But memory is not to the brain what a limb is to the body, an integral part. It is an acquisition in the process of human evolution; and by the end of the 20th century the homo sapiens decided, tacitly though collectively, that processing memory, keeping it stored and retrieving it at will is not worthy of human labour. They began rapidly outsourcing the tedious work to intelligent machines and artificial chips. The chips started holding memory, the mobiles became the repositories. Mobs, shorn of the memory of the struggles they had waged for over a century for freedom, equality, dignity and rights, started behaving more like what mobiles had been and the mobiles aspired to become mobs. The two together are re-shaping the human memory. For homo sapiens of the 21st century, memory is of no great use. They are constantly excited about the future. Their happiness depends on the wellness of their credit cards that allow them to spend from future earnings. Their bond with the earth is expressed by using all its resources meant for the future. They do not like to think of how long they have lived, and keep thinking of how much longer they will. This new species in becoming, described by terms like ‘cyborgs’ and ‘ homo deus’, does not have much use for memory. That, it irresponsibly assumes, mobiles can do, as Bohemian artists thought, “living, that the servants can do”. Memory, as it were, is no longer of value to humans.

Mobiles, the multi-tasked tablets, on their part, hold a tantalizing vision before us. They can buy and sell for us, convey sentiments for us, open up universes stranger than humans have ever known, freeze time in photo-stills, think on our behalf and, console terrified humans by allowing them to take their ‘selfies’. In short, they have started doing most, if not all, of the things that proved humans as living beings. They have an additional strength that humans do not have. They communicate long distance in nano-seconds. Since now mobiles keep memory and humans shun it, the states that the humanistic-mobs of the last century created have become overbusy erasing every trace of memory. Regimes in most countries have armies of mobile-set trolls busy doctoring people’s memory. They have been cajoling people to forget history as it was and accept its myopic revisions. The mobile-wielders tell us that Gandhi brought about the division of India, that Godse was a great soul, that Nehru was an enemy of Indians, and that ancient India had developed plastic surgery and high-flying planes – and more such enlightening things the older history never knew. They also bombard us with accounts of how well things have been and, lest you doubt their portrayal of the ideologically sanitized progress, they produce, almost from nowhere, oven-fresh reports by international grading agencies on their wonderful achievements. Facts, fiction and fear make a unique cocktail. It is now as if mobs will not remember, and if they do, mobiles will not allow them the luxury.

States that consciously encourage the creating of societies that forget to produce critiques of the system generate what ancient Latin described as hegemony. The term refers to the nature of power, but in hegemonies such uncontested power becomes possible entirely out of the majority’s self-approved willingness to promote the dominant ideas and perspectives. It is an insomniac social condition under which vast numbers are ready to impose the will of the rulers on the less powerful in the society. Hegemony that the amoral, complacent and unthinking majorities fuel results in a politico-psychological illness that ancient Greeks called ‘hubris’ among the ruling order. It looks like pride, but is a lot more than an ordinary person’s pride in things good. It makes the ruling order forget why they are where they are. Hubris shuns dialogue. It avoids questions. It leads the ruling order to generate deafening self-righteous rhetoric and makes it entirely remorseless. Hegemonies headed by orders drunk on hubris also start showing these tendencies. Masses that were at least human even when they were mobs become lynch-mobs.

The incurable pride of the rulers combined with large sections of citizenry ready to crawl in order to fulfil the whims and wishes of the rulers makes the society a mob-lynching society. It begins its mission with lynching memory. It proposes new versions of history in which the ruling order must be depicted as ‘the first’ with nothing before it of any consequence, and all evil. If there are dissenters, they are placed under sharp assault by the troll-armies. If they continue to raise their voice, they are shown the gate as traitors. The Midas-touch of any ruler heavy with hubris quickens the taste for violence among the people he rules. When mobiles keep attacking the memory and the minds of the masses every minute, the people become mobs and start lynching everyone and everything that they think the ruler does not like.

Both hegemony and hubris have their peculiar histories. Since hegemony likes to ban questioning, the suppressed questions start returning in strange forms. They erupt naked from Una. They cry in agony from Unnao. They come in slogans in campuses and between the lines in press columns. And the ossified society that hegemony shapes has no ability to face questioning even as much as a pinch of salt at Dandi. Hubris was seen by the Greek society as substance of tragedy. Its ending may generate fear but it does not lead to any deep sympathy. The lynching mobs and the mobile-troll-armies forget that forcing erasure of memory finally leads to the tragic fall of hegemony and hubris. Silenced memory returns after every exile.