Why the JNU fracas takes me back to Gulliver’s Travels

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The news from Jawaharlal Nehru University and the subsequent court drama took me back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As I looked at the direction we have taken in the last two years, the parallels with Swift’s masterpiece satire became even more stark. Written in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical travelogue capturing the voyages made by Lemuel Gulliver, to remote and beguiling corners of the world. While filled with nonsensical characters and countries, Swift’s book is a cynical comment on the rot prevalent in the politics, society and imperceptibly, human nature of his times.

Each voyage represents the sordid reality of Swift’s age. In Lilliput, he is given shelter and refuge and he helps the Lilliputians pacify their neighbours, the Blefuscudians. However, he does not help Lilliput make it a colony, and is charged with “treason”, convicted and sentenced to be blinded, before he escapes. The commentary on the politics of the age is omnipresent. The despotic and ceremony obsessed emperor of the small Lilliputians was actually based on King George, the first King of England from 1714 to 1727. The Low heels and the High heels – the two political parties of Lilliput – represent the Tories and Whigs. The reasoning behind the justice system and the flailed understanding of treason and sedition underline this section.

Indian connect

In another voyage, Gulliver is stranded on remote islands near India. Here he is rescued by a flying island, where science, mathematics, music, and astronomy are promoted, without pragmatic ends. The interests in innovation lacks scientific temper, reasoning or rationality. The citizens cannot develop infrastructure because their instruments of measurements are compasses and quadrants, rather than tape measure. They believe in astrology and live in houses without right angles.

The society is male-dominated and women want to leave, and never return. The leaders throw rocks at the cities on the ground to curb dissent and discontent. In another country, resources are spent to uncover the political conspiracies of suspicious persons by examining their excrement. The citizens extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and mix paint colours by smell instead of pigments. Elsewhere, Gulliver encounters utopia, however, under the rule of beast-like creatures called Houyhnhnms, over the savage humans – the Yahoos.

Over the last week, much that has happened across India has resembled something out of a satirical novel or a dystopian play. Bedrocks of a liberal democracy – freedom of speech and expression – were threatened. Sedition was diluted to problematic and misinformed slogans by a bunch of students, and suddenly, dictated interpretations of nationalism, patriotism and citizenship were in vogue.

Grave issues of national security were based on tweets by parody accounts. Law and order became subverted notions to be debated and discussed, rather than implemented. Lawyers beat up journalists in front of a court, and the police defined this incident as a mere “scuffle”. A 207-ft tall national flag at every university is now looked at as a solution to all the problems that seemingly ail higher education in India.

Frightening reality

When good satire is written, it adds intellectual capital to the field of literature. It is entertaining and interesting for a reader to look beneath the lines, dissect and unbundle the metaphors and allegories. Be it George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Joseph Keller’s Catch 22 or even Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, each depicts reality through the author’s reimagination of it. However when reality starts to resemble satire, its ends can be frightening.

Over the last two years, we have often seen the ridiculous gain traction as legitimate news across the country. It has been best to ignore these and move on. The meat of an animal being used as evidence for harassment, mob violence, and even murder; unpunished and casual shouting of “Go Back to Pakistan” by members of a “fringe” to legitimate Indian citizens, sans condemnation. Ghar Wapsi and Love jihad emerging as actual concepts; Valentine’s Day being renamed as Matru Pitru Pujan Diwas; Most recently, a criminal goat getting arrested in Chhattisgarh. These absurd headlines are funny, when you read them at first. However, ignoring each of them and letting them fly past as silliness of a population segment, have eventually allowed serious and grave discourses be converted to satirical and dystopian realities.

Need of the hour

It should be worrying that a few days before the national Budget, (and during the Make in India week in Mumbai) India’s discourse was concerted on student politics and dissent – within a single university.

The gross breakdown of law and order tarnished the credibility of institutions, and the enforcers of the rule of law. The government – one which was able to shed its controversial past, reconstruct its image, and emerge as a credible alternative across masses – has lost its plot over absurd issues.

Instead of appropriating and propagating issues related to growth, development, foreign policy, investment, employment, education – terms with tangible outcomes that it once promised to address, it is allowing majoritarianism, and all associated rot to percolate down to its core and infiltrate the system. It is losing sight of governance, law and order, and needs to urgently recalibrate its priorities and agenda. Unless its mandate now legitimately includes making contemporary India resemble one of Gulliver’s many satirical voyages.

 

 

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