Last week, in his inaugural address in the new, state-of-the-art parliament building, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, in words to that effect, that the vision of a new, grand India cannot be done on old canvases. Just hours later, Ramesh Bidhuri, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Tughlakabad in Delhi, verbally sprayed that visionary canvas with graffiti.
In the mean dark streets of India’s big cities, on the walls of tunnels, in the washrooms of schools and trains, in places where we are the most alone and, ironically, the most free to exercise our right to speech, graffiti takes over. And I am talking about graffiti at its worst. We begin to express ourselves in terms of extreme judgements. Our rejection of the unfair world—in four-letter words.
This kind of graffiti I’m talking about never explains the process of thought. It usually consists of monosyllabic conclusions. Abuses. An expletive is an opinion at its purest. It is condemnation of a person or thing at its most basic level, and beyond reconsideration or redemption—like social media lynching, the hashtag being the graffiti sign. It is the version of truth that suits your inclinations. The world is an echo chamber of whatever we would like to believe in.
Often, graffiti as a word or a drawing could be a bare wish or the equivalent of a dire, if wishful, sentence. It is the ‘writer’ as the executioner. It was in a school bathroom that I learned a classmate of mine would like me to be roasted in hellfires. My name was equated with an expletive on the wall. Below that was a body, a horizontal line with a bulbous head, resting uneasily on vertical lines, a makeshift pyre.
Verbal communication began over 150,000 years ago and evolved into written language 6,000 years ago. Graffiti as an aspect of the imagination has stayed with us through all those transitions. I mention these esoteric beginnings of speech because I believe we are possibly going back to them.
Ramesh Bidhuri has been thrice an MLA in the Delhi assembly and twice an MP. According to reports, he goes out of his way to help his constituents. Bidhuri has very deep connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He is, from his sayings and doings, a Sanatani Hindu, a staunch believer in the shastras, in the abiding values of good manners and conduct, and an exponent of the Sanskritic way of life. Yet the language he used in parliament while answering Kunwar Danish Ali, a Bahujan Samaj Party MP from Uttar Pradesh, is unlikely to make his Vedic forefathers proud.
Perhaps there is a reason why Bidhuri resorted to the prehistoric graffiti aspect of the imagination. In his speech earlier, Danish Ali, congratulating the Indian Space Research Organisation on the Chandrayaan 3 achievements, credited Jawaharlal Nehru and other successive prime ministers, most of them belonging to the Congress party, for laying the groundwork of India’s rocket program, thus denting the halo around Narendra Modi as Chandrayaan’s only benefactor. In passing, Danish Ali also ridiculed the Indian Institute of Technology-Mandi director, who reportedly attributed the recent deluge and landslides and resultant deaths in that state to the consumption of non-vegetarian food.
In Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington’s thesis is that post-Cold War, it is not countries that go to war so much as cultures and religions. Certainly, within India, there is a clash of civilisations happening between the indigenous and Abrahamic religions. Shorn of euphemisms, a war of sorts between Hinduism and Islam. One of the casualties of this conflict has been language. The entire discourse of Hindu revivalist politics could be seen as a series of efforts to achieve a supremacy of culture and heritage, a militant correction in a perceived imbalance.
The frequent renaming of cities, roads and railway stations is a part of that culture war. It is rewriting history ground up towards the first myths. It is a safe bet that the most eloquent BJP politicians, including the prime minister, take pains to avoid the usage of Urdu words in their public speeches. The official Hindu is returning to his/her myths and recreating the mythical space, for it is pure—because there is no Muslim there.
It is altogether another question where they should be. The popular refrain directed at those who differ from a majoritarian idea of India, ‘Go to Pakistan’, is an indication of people being literally shown their places. Indeed, pretty much the words Bidhuri used, such as Mullah, ugravadi, etc., speak for themselves.
It is also true that the words were later expunged and that senior BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh expressed regret on behalf of his party. But Bidhuri showed what his party is thinking in its personal spaces, and that parliament could be conceived to be a formal extension of those somewhat chthonic spaces.
In The Politics of Language, David Beaver and Jason Stanley argue that the function of speech is moving towards attuning people to something, be it a shared reality, emotion or identity. It is increasingly a new aspect of the language to be at the service of the echo-chamber nature of a post-informational society. The new language of politics, as practised by elected representatives like Bidhuri, marks the legitimisation of the judgemental philosophy of graffiti and its graduation from private spaces like pissoirs to parliament.
Recently, I happened to read Manoj Mitta’s Caste Pride, which deals with the constitutional and legislative battles of colonial and post-colonial India for a socially and politically more equitable India. As it happens, the book also gives you a clear idea of the quality of debates in legislative councils, assemblies and parliament. The depth and sweep of those times perhaps cannot be expected at play now, divorced as we are from those historic times of nation-building. But to bring it all down to the level of a few expletives is to say the idea of the debate itself is over, and that it is time to distribute the prizes.