The End Of The Road?

Language of Power, Power of Language

Suchibrata Sen

In the eighties of the last century, a new stream of historiography made its beginning. The first volume of Subaltern Studies was published in 1982. A theoretical basis of it was found with the publication of Ranajit Guha's 'Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India' in 1983. This basis was drawn from Antonio Gramsci's famous 'Prison Notebooks'. The quintessence of this theory is a comprehensive domination over the subalterns not only in political, but in social and cultural matters as well. On one side of it lies the dominant classes, and on the other lies the dominated, the subaltern class. There are a number of complexities even within this simple proposition. Without entering into them, it can be said that the subaltern historians, in trying to apply it to Indian history, brought out an independent existence of peasant consciousness that was not influenced by external ideology.

According to Marxism, the superimposition of the ideology of the working class brings out a qualitative transformation of the peasant society, and peasant consciousness by itself cannot produce any revolutionary transformation. In spite of this, the independent character of peasant and tribal rebellions in Indian history is undeniable. But who qualify for the epithet 'subaltern'? A broad definition would encompass the dominated lower castes, rural and semi-urban people untouched by colonial education, poor religious minorities and women earning their livelihood by manual labour. Despite cultural diversities, they are, by economic criterion, deprived and exploited.

Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak raised the question, "Can the Subaltern speak?" The answer was that it was the elte that represented them. In India after the transfer of power, one class of subalterns is speaking on behalf of itself—a phenomenon made possible by universal franchise and limited expansion of education. Numerically, they form the majority of the population. Hence their importance in universal franchise is a determining factor for seizing power. One of the many means of drawing them nearer is to speak in their language. A pertinent question is whether the language of subalterns is different. Ordinarily, the language used by politicians so far, although intelligible to the subalterns, did not touch their heart. In the words Alexander Bari (1818-1903), "A figure of speech is a deviation from the plain and ordinary mode of speaking for the sake of greater effect; it is an unusual form of speech." This 'unusual form of speech' may be differently used for the sake of greater effect, but it has to be borne in mind that the languages used by politicians have their specific historic and political situations. The fiery oratory of Hitler had as its background the national humiliation and economic misery of Germany after the First World War, which led to the acceptance of this oratory by the German people.

The period from the forties to the mid-seventies of the last century was a golden era of the communist movement in India. The period was inflamable owing to a number of factors—femine, riots, partition, food crisis etc. One cannot forget the Naxalites who could endear themselves to the subalterns. In the forties and fifties, activists of the Communist Party of India could become co-sharers of the sufferings of the people in villages and gunjs, and to borrow the title of a famous story of Manik Bandopadhyaya, they could become 'Haraner Natjamai' (Grand son-in-law of Haran). The songs composed by the IPTA workers transcended urban boundaries to reach the hearts of the rural millions. This writer personally witnessed the popularity of Gaji songs. That was the first time that diku young men acquired the credibility of the santal tribal masses. Yet it has to be remembered that such songs and speeches, which can be called 'the power of language' has a limitation. It becomes real power only when the singers and speakers are able to share the aspirations and miseries as well as happiness of the subalterns. It is not possible to influence the masses by means of linguistic style only.

The overall outcome of these was the change of scenario. The Left Front Government was formed with Mr Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister, and it was announced that the administration would not operate from the Writers' Buildings alone, and it would spread over every nook and corner. But the language of power is different. For the first few years of the Left Front rule, there was a real amity between the people and the Front. But later the dream of liberation again became a captive of the language of power. And those who were given foremost importance as the vanguard of revolutionary change, namely the subalterns, remained neglected and out of power.

In the later years of Left Front rule, power-intoxicated arrogance, corruption and finally, happenings in Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh etc sounded its death-knell. Jyoti Basu's comment on Bantala, erakam to hayei thake (such things are common occurrences) or his behaviour towards Mamata Bando-padhyay were literal representatives of the language of power. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's distinction between 'we' and 'they' and his utterance 'paid back in their own coin' are variants of this language. Red lights, security guards, impeccable dresses, arrogance, nepotism—all these, coupled with the behaviour of the party foot-soldiers at the lower level, created a division between the ruling party and the subalterns. All the bodies and institutions were captured by the Left Front loyalists. This politicisation led to utter neglect of social reforms. No movement was witnessed against drunkenness, boyhood marriage, and witch-hunting among tribes, dowry system or forcible extortion of money. This marked the beginning of a total social degradation, which was subsequently utilized in a clever fashion. This degradation has a long history.

Change takes place according to the dictates of history, and nobody should rue it. What is to be judged is if this change is qualitative or external. There is not much room for doubt that while in opposition, Mamata Banerjee became a near relation of the subalterns. Her industriousness, single purpose of ousting the CPI(M) and determination in the face of repression led to the eclipse of the 34-year-old Left Front rule. Andre Bettle called Mamata 'a phenomenon'. The petty-bourgeois leaders of the CPI(M), who had once led peasant movements, became obsessed with 'industrialization', which led them to misjudge peasnat sentiments. Leaving aside the debate as to whether industries can be built without acquisition of land, it cannot be gainsaid that Mamata Banerjee succeeded in grasping the issue of touchiness of farmers over land. She then did not have to look back. Her gestures and language took her nearer to the subalterns. The Trinamul Congress rose to power with a huge popular mandate and Mamata Banerjee became the Chief Minister. Her external appearance, i.e. dress etc, did not change, but the real change came in the language of power. Here it is relevant to note the adage 'style is the man'. When it is said in the Kolkata Book Fair that 'they should be whipped and set right', it no longer remains the language of the subalterns, but becomes a symbol of feudal arrogance. Again, when the rape of a woman in the Park Street area is described as a concocted affair, or efforts are made to suppress the events of Barasat, Kamduni or Gaighata, the language of the state becomes a language of self-defense. There the subaltern identity is only a residue. In his book Pratibader Bhasa (The Language of Protest) Saileswar Ghosh has remarked, "The language of power gives its psyche a definite shape and engulfs the person in power with a cover. He/she is no longer able to see what lies outside this cover, and even refuses to believe that there is something outside." When there is a protest it 'engages in a final conflict with power'. The seed of this antagonism lies in the basic nature of language, it is this conflict that Mikhail Bakhtin has called 'class struggle'. The language of the dominant is smashed and that of the dominated is created. The area is that of the strongest conflict.

It is this picture of conflict that people witness in various protest marches about Suntia, Barasat, Gaighata, Kamduni etc. It may not be that such marches do not always represent class struggle. Yet "protests are like cobra-bites to the institution". "The tyrant does not wish that the history of his oppression remains engraved in walls" (op.cit, p-98). The protest of Kamduni is a subaltern protest in various senses.

First of all, the protesters are mainly from poor peasant or religious minority households. Secondly, they are women. When, this world of an all-pervasive degradation of value senses and of all-round greed, these women refuse the bait bribe, any conscientious person must bow his head in reverence. Borrowing the language of Sankha Ghosh, the famous poet, it can be said that the state is now making a hell of the lives of protesters. It seems that those who are protesting, marching in processions and pouring their anger on television screens are somewhat deficient in their consciousness of the state machinery. What does one expect? Does one expect a remedy by means of these? The state cannot have any human face. Power is something that "changes the notion of humanity, the notion of right and wrong, and the notion of even sorrow and agony, joy and love along with the change of regime." (op.cit, p-126)

In 1965 was published Ronald Segal's 'Crisis of India'. Two years later, Nevile Maxwel wrote some articles in the London Times. The proposition of both was that democracy would not last in India. Possibly they were precipitate in their judgement. There are examples in history of a return of dictatorship through a democratic path. Referring to Indira Gandhi, what Nijlingappa said is still relevant. Nijlingappa wrote that some leader reaches the pinnacle of power by riding on the wave of popular support and then he/she becomes overwhelmed with political self-love. He/she is spurred by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants who, by resorting to corrupt and terrorist practices, suppress the opposition and seek to turn popular opinion into an echo of the opinion of the authorities.

A saying of Mao Ze-dong once became famous. 'Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun'. At present democracy, not only in West Bengal but in the whole of India also, is made to last by means of the barrel of the gun. How much protection do the democratic value-senses receive in a country where elections cannot be held without armed guards? The means of deliverance from this terrible condition lies of course not in a reversal of the direction of the barrel, because history is replete with examples of its failure. It is the consciousness arising from sensibility that can strike at the dominant power. Suntia and Kamduni have demonstrated this sensibility although in a small measure.

Vol. 46, No. 17, Nov 3 -9, 2013

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