Bhakts of demonetisation are proof we have lost our capacity to think

The merchants of cults will exalt mindless loyalty as the ultimate virtue. It will be packaged as nationalism and patriotism.

 |  7-minute read |   13-12-2016
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The familiar idiom "mistaking the trees for the forest" holds a profound insight. The trees are part of the forest. You see the trees. Indeed many of them. And you think you see the forest. You don’t. There is more to the forest than the trees you see.

The same with our monetisation forest. So far we have stayed stuck at a few trees. So, here is a signpost to the forest...

There is some logic to the argument of the BJP spokesmen that the common man is in his rightful place in the queues. There is, in other words, a logic to it, even if that logic has not so far been spelt out.

What, pray, is that logic?

Was there, let us ask, a logic to a maniac like Hitler becoming the Messiah of the German masses?

Hilter’s path to power was paved with the plight of the people. The German pride had been hurt. The masses were in disarray. The nation was adrift. And as Hannah Arendt points out in her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the people lost faith in the extant political system. They needed, desperately needed, an alternative. 

In such a situation, there are two possible options. The first is the regeneration of the people, which involves the painstaking process of value-nourishing a society and making its systems and institutions credible and viable. 

It calls for restoration of the drooping spirit of a people by righting their wrongs, rectifying their weaknesses and awaking the dormant but sublime collective spirit with what is universal and enduring. This, however, is not a quick fix.

The second option, the alluring quick fix, is to embrace a Messiah. If Hitler were not around, the Germans of that time would have invented a substitute and installed him as a national cult. The Germans needed a Messiah. Hitler obliged them.

The German masses too, like our demonetisation herds, stood in queues for long. Of course not in front of ATMs, but in front of the shrine of Nationalism. They stood longer and suffered greater hellish pains.

What most of us overlook is the fact that suffering is basic to cults and mythologies. The greater the suffering, the deeper the victim's loyalties and the fulfilment. In consumerist malls you pay in cash or by card. In cult malls you pay in the coin of suffering: fasting, self-flagellation, risking one’s life, martyrdom...

Why do you think we have a special regard for martyrs, even though we don’t, clearly, want to be martyrs? You better ask the pro-demonetisation experts.

As a rule, cults arise when we lose or renounce our capacity to think. The rise of cult, in turn, cripples what little capacity to think there might still be. Even as a cult gains ground, and spreads its roots in the soul of a people, they develop an allergy to examining and discussing issues pertaining to its domain rationally. It becomes an offence to think for oneself. 

This clarified, we can look at two strident features of the demonetisation scenario that, otherwise, would refuse to be unpacked.

1) Popular responses to demonetisation have so far been cultic, rather than rational. They are marked by blind faith, as in the case of the dogma of “long-term gain”. Clearly, this is not based on any rational data, analysis or theory. It is a piece of blind faith. It is useless to confront it with any rational argument. The evidence of protracted personal suffering has made no dent on this creed so far. Not even the death of 80-odd fellow human beings!

2) The pathetic plight of Parliament, the Temple of Indian Democracy. There is a feature common to the ruling dispensation and the opposition parties alike. Or, there is a uniform political trait: the incapacity to think rationally and to take a cogent, consistent public stand on the issue.

nietzscheembed_121316012200.jpg When the capacity to think declines, as Nietzsche of all people pointed out, we are left with only the will to dominate.

For the first time in the history of our democracy, we have a situation in which the Treasury benches and opposition parties are alike averse to - if LK Advani is to be believed - a debate on a national issue of extreme importance in Parliament. Why so? 

The answer is quite simple and straightforward. When the capacity to think declines, as Nietzsche of all people pointed out, we are left with only the will to dominate. The will to dominate is incompatible with debate. You either debate or dominate. You can’t do both!

The purpose of debate is to bring together thinking on an issue by both sides so as to understand the given issue more objectively and completely. It is impossible to debate without thinking. Also, it is impossible to not debate so long as you think. 

What we have seen so far in Parliament from both sides is the inability to think, and the corresponding unwillingness to debate, marked by a pronounced penchant to showcase a war of wills. It matters not who thinks best. What matters is who blinks first.

Parliament has become a wrestling ring. Both sides are battling it out as best they can. The PM is seen as the super-wrestler, feared alike by both sides! This is a heady script, but this is not democracy!

It is time to shift the focus in the demonetisation drama from willing to thinking, from politicians to people. The democratic future of India will not depend on plastic money or the mythology of a digital economy. It will depend - for better, for worse - on our national character, on the kind of people we are.

The bulwark against exploitation, manipulation, enslavement and brutalisation is TRUTH (my apologies to the Mahatma). But what is truth?

The practical part of truth is the capacity to think objectively. It is the principled refusal to belong, herd-like, to this camp or that. It is the courage to be true to one’s own experiences, pains and convictions as consonant with available facts.

The merchants of cults will exalt mindless loyalty as the ultimate virtue. It will be packaged as nationalism and patriotism. Forget not this simple fact in history. Those who have preached nationalism and patriotism have done so only to justify the unthinkable, to defend the indefensible.

Why are these brands of the opium of the masses advertised only in times of disarray? Why are they not relevant to how the country is run? Why doesn’t patriotism – love of the Fatherland - become love for the people and a commitment to their welfare?

The tragedy, my friends, is that we are living in an age of willing, not of thinking. Thinking, as Descartes maintained, holds the secret of being human. “I think,” he said, “therefore I am.” It is as crucial as that.

We have, instead, fallen in love with willing, with its resultant power-play. To us the heroes are those who succeed in imposing their wills brutally on others. It matters little to us that its outcome is slavery.

Slaves have no right to complain if made to stand on queues or asked to swallow irrational myths and mendacious mythologies. Give the cue and they will parrot, “Short-term pain, long-term gain.” If asked to examine it in light of facts, they will get annoyed and damn you as an anti-national.

Our collective plight - our refusal to think, our eagerness to embrace cultic creeds proffering magical utopias, our atavistic eagerness to be partisan, and worst of all, our limitless endurance induced by deficient vitality, the paralysis of will in an age of willing - is the forest of demonetisation.

The rest are all trees: parts here and there, but nowhere near the whole of what we shall soon learn is a crucial turning point in the unfolding destiny of the Bharat that we call India.

Also read: It's sad Modi has made people suffer over demonetisation


Valson Thampu Valson Thampu

The writer is former principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

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