Condemning neutrality is a terrible way to build consensus
If you are active on social media and broadly fall to the right of the Indian ideological spectrum, chances are that recently either you have used or know someone who has used this poem by the late Ramdhari Singh Dinkar to shame (for want of better term) those who choose to stay neutral in time of peril. (The landmark battle going on in the Supreme Court over the Sabarimala temple is the most recent example)
समर शेष है,
नहीं पाप का भागी केवल व्याध
जो तटस्थ हैं, समय लिखेगा उनके भी अपराध
Upon applying some thought, it becomes fairly clear this assertion that those who remain neutral in this battle too will be deemed guilty by history, is doing more harm than good to the movement and an analysis of this on the basis of first principles might be in order.
I tried to find more context to this poem and was not able to. My own limited knowledge of Hindi aside, as the late Jaiprakash Narayan had quoted the same poet’s “Singhasan khali karo, Janata aa rahi hain” to a crowd of some one lakh people at the Ramlila ground, I am assuming even this poem was either explicitly inreference to, or had relevance to the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi led Congress government in the seventies. Here is one of the first reasons why many present day applications of this poem may lack the same effect as it did back then. Matter of fact is, no matter how grim things look to you at present, we are not in a state of declared emergency. Your claim of undeclared emergency may sway a few, but for many of us on the centre of the spectrum that sounds like the chicken and sky is falling story.
Coming back to the argument that neutrality in itself is a crime, here are some reasons why it must be used most sparingly and why it is unfair in almost all ordinary circumstances (and no, the situation today doesn’t qualify as extraordinary)
- It puts the oppressor and the bystander on the same footing- Surprisingly for a group that spends a sizeable part of its social media existence crying foul over Bollywood’s bias, the cultural right has swallowed the Bollywood rhetoric of “jurm sehene wala jurm karne wale itna aparadhi hain(the one who tolerates crime is as culpable as the criminal)” effortlessly. This is not only not true but actually immoral. By claiming that even neutrals are guilty, you are effectively denying the distinction that exists between someone who is actually conspiring against you and someone who may just be apathetic to your cause. (More on this later).
- As human nature goes, the two charges that most people will react most vehemently against are turpitude and stupidity and yet more and more people on social media turn every disagreement into a referendum on the other person’s morality or intellect. Most of us don’t like being told we are immoral or we are stupid. Telling people if they don’t support your cause, then they either must be immoral or idiots is only likely to get their back up. Please remember the number of times the left has used “disagreement as a proof of immorality” tactic on you and ask yourself how many times you ended up changing your position as a result of that.
- In a country as vast and diverse as ours, any cause, especially cultural one, is likely to have differing degrees of resonance from various communities, geographical regions, gender etc. One of the reason why the poem made so much of sense in the seventies was emergency was an infringement large enough to unite everyone irrespective of the above differences. From time to time, even in modern India, we will keep on having battles that make very large communities unite for a common cause. Assuming that the cause you wish to champion automatically qualifies in the above category is being guilty of ethnocentricity. If your cause fails to generate that kind of support, the two most likely reasons are lack broad mass appeal and/or problem in your communication strategy. In both cases, blaming others is not going to change things.
- Stripped of its bells and whistles, this poem is essentially a taste of sufficient purity, where the poet feels those staying on the side-lines are guilty of not being sufficiently pure. For people to take this charge seriously, the accuser needs to command very high degree of respect from those he/she is accusing. Shri Ramdhari could do it possibly due to his decades of work as a nationalist, poet and a thinker. Today, for example if Shri David Frawley ji uses this while espousing a cause he feels passionately about, I am sure most of us would take it seriously and introspect. Will the same poem used by Seema the warrior engineer evoke similar introspection just because she happens to have 100000 followers and her own YouTube channel? I hardly think so.
- There is a saying in English that a drunken man uses a lamp-post for support rather than illumination. I am afraid, this poem has become that lamp-post for many culturally drunks to stand in argument when their persuasion skills and logic fails. In short, many cultural warriors use argument made in the poem as a short cut to enlisting help by persuasion. This is lazy activism where the people you have failed to win over are being dubbed immoral. Again, there is a leftist overtone of brow-beating and bullying your opponent into towing your line to this argument that should worry us greatly.
There are many causes, a few of them beyond scope of this article. However, as I have said earlier, faulty communication and lack of mass appeal may be the two most common one. However, there is another reason that is completely avoidable and yet it is causing many sympathizers not to vocalize their support on certain issues.
Around 2016, I had become interested in the movement for Universal Basic Income. While I had not made up my mind about (I still have not), I thought this was a movement that needed a patient and thorough hearing. Soon I began to follow an American journalist named Scott Santern as I found him to be the most exhaustive source of information about UBI on social media. However, soon after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections, Mr. Santern’s feed, like many on the American left, turned almost exclusively into a monotonous rant against the President. At one point, opening my twitter feed and reading 10 tweets about Trump for one tweet on UBI started to sound like an unfavourable deal and I unfollowed him.
I was reminded of this when a few of my acquaintances told me in confidence that one of the reason they were in two minds about vocalizing their support for the #ReadytoWait movement online was their unease with a couple of its prominent activists and their hostile attitude towards supporters of Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadanvis. I myself remember being called member of “save the Dave” gang for calling out false propaganda about the Maharashtra CM a few months ago. Even though I opined that character of individuals should not get in the way of cause, the hesitation in throwing weights behind activists who harbour extraordinary amount of animus towards us is completely understandable. Now, either you can go back to Ramdhari ji’s poem and accuse us of being petty and failing our duty to dharma, or you can introspect and ask- do I want to be known as someone with an opinion about everything or as someone with an impact on something? If your purpose is merely to be the self-appointed conscience keeper and examiner of purity for the society at large, then more power to you and you can keep spreading yourself thin. However, if you wish to move one step up and use social media to build consensus and support behind a cause, then I am afraid you will have to be circumspect with your choice of battles and guarded about your tone.
Lastly, in these strangely intersecting times, the people indifferent to your battle today might be your most passionate comrades-in-arms in a different battle on a different battlefield tomorrow. If you are serious about your cause, you ought to learn not to let your frustration destroy possibilities for future. Dwight D Eisenhower once said “you don’t lead people by hitting them over the head- that’s assault, not leadership”. As the Supreme Commander of the winning army in the most elaborate theatre of war the world has ever seen, he ought to have known what he was speaking about.
Featured Image: Twitter