Posted online: Friday, March 07, 2008 at 2337 hrs
What does it take to dissent in times when every act of protest is questioned as to its authenticity, asks Shiv Visvanathan
The recent strictures passed by the Supreme Court on the lawyer Teesta Setalvad raise a whole gamut of questions. Setalvad had raised the issue that the delay in courts' handling of cases relating to the Gujarat riots mounted to an act of indifference and injustice. The Court in response noted a case of impropriety marked with impatience and condemned her for it.
There was a great sense of relief, even euphoria, at the Supreme Court's response. The right felt Setalvad had no right to speak for the victims as she was not representative of them. It saw Setalvad's protest as an act of arrogation. Better behaved activists also exuded an 'I told you feeling' about one of their more visible contemporaries.
Today activism is a career; a style that prefers negotiation to the scream. Many activists and journalists find Setalvad 'screechy, loud, hysterical,' the kind of symptoms which one associated with the ammonia-snuffing hysteric on whom the Charcots and Freuds built their discipline. When activism is a form of consultancy, one does not want to take it to the streets. Today you don't want to deal with the obsessive behaviour of someone in the perpetual act of washing. It is like a tic that is forever distracting.
Yes, Teesta Setalvad is a difficult person. I remember when professor J.S. Bandukwala talked of forgiveness, she let loose the Madam Defarge act. She plays the perpetual Gadfly. She screams, screams on behalf of the victims, because the scream is the only answer to the silence of Gujarat. The communication theorist Colin Cherry once described noise as unwelcome music. Setalvad's scream is doubly unwelcome. But it is an act of witness.
No one could contend that a Teesta Setalvad is easy in public. She often sounds like an official mourner, reminding one of the grief we should have felt. She does not sound like a finishing school product. She stuns, she appalls, she rants, she raves and she repeats it all over again. Listening to her, one should realise whistle-blowing is not a symphony.
But societies like ours that are routinely conformist or banally indifferent to the violence around us should thank these obsessives. When you want to discuss the latest film, they intrude to remind you about Human Rights. When you talk of Ekta Kapoor, she repeats the litany of Gujarat. It is a form of bad behaviour that society needs. Setalvad has to work overtime to remind us of the ideals we have forgotten.
Let us be clear that dissent is not easy. A letter to the editor hardly causes a ripple. A procession is seen by the middle class as a mere brake on traffic. Trade unions are passé. Civil rights reports don't have a page 3 rating.
When she or Cedric Prakash protest, people immediately attribute lesser ambitions to them. There is a malicious hint that such behaviour is a search for a Magsaysay or some European Human Rights award. More banally, it is seen as grant and attention seeking.
Protest about anything around you and sense the loneliness and ostracism you feel. People will drop in to enquire about your distress as if it is a personal ailment. Then they will imply that you are not mature enough, not strategic enough. If you persist, advice becomes threat, threat becomes ostracism and ostracism graduates into other forms of social deterrence. Idealism is seen as a disease you should have lost years ago like acne or measles. Only then does one realise how tiring it is. Dissent is not one scream. It demands an epic chain of protests. The stamina for it demands that you understand the loneliness of political long-distance runners.
The Teestas, the Medha Patkars keep our society alive, vibrant. They are tuning forks telling us we have not lost our sense of music. Of course, they are not all likeable creatures.
Protest has its quirkiness. You have the one-point person, who will talk about Bhopal in every seminar about disasters. They remind you of the radicals of the earlier decades who asked 'What about class?' in every seminar regardless of whether it was about Beethoven, Gandhi or Globalisation. I admit they do distract and irritate in demanding their redundant pound of flesh. But we need them, in fact we have to invent them.
There is also the jumper. For them, last week it was Narmada, this week it is farmer suicides. You realise there is a trail of fashion in disasters as in dress. Yet the jumper is a reminder that we fail to connect. Try talking about the disaster in Bhopal today. People feel you are recommending a quaint tourist destination or merely respond by asking you to read Dominic Lapierre on Bhopal.
Dissent is doubly difficult today. Every act of protest is questioned as to its authenticity. It is argued that each voice needs the right form of representation. No one asks why one citizen can't represent the other. As citizens, we share a common membership and humanity.
There is a political correctness here we must challenge. Protest too demands civility but it does not have to be the civility of the drawing room. A scream is not just a cry of pain but an act of witness. It does not have to follow the codes of the drawing room. Being correct and being true are two different registers. Setalvad's protest shows that correctness might hide an evasion of truth.
One must keep the dignity of the court but a society must allow the protests of Setalvad. More, it must respect and sustain people like her as precious forms of life.
The writer is a social scientist based in Ahmedabad