The simple point of this strategy is that aggressively administered stupidity is stupefying. It is too much of a struggle keeping the daily battering at bay – “nationalism”; “beef”; sedition charges, slogans, and two bodies dangling from a tree in Jharkhand.
It feels like hanging season in India. In Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, outcast and humbled, still longing for the stars, ended up hung. Citizens routinely demand, and even celebrate, hangings. Women and children clamour that so and so be hanged and that, too, urgently, promptly, before daybreak. Then there are the DIY hangmen, the cow-protection vigilantes whose love for their bovine mothers is matched only by their contempt for human life. Hanging is melodramatic – the body thrashes about, the eyes pop out. But this is morbid stuff, unsuitable for primetime family viewing, saas-bahu time. My theme today, therefore, is something that is altogether more cosy, even domestic, a sentence that is enforced with anaesthetic care. Not death by hanging, our collective sentence is death by stupidity.
In 1976, Carlo M. Cipolla, sometime professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley (and at many other universities besides), published a famous study of human stupidity – a strangely neglected subject considering the sheer abundance of the phenomenon. The key findings of this study – The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity – were summarised in a report published in the Guardian in 2012:
- Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
- A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
- Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
But there is a certain uniqueness that attends all manifestations of stupidity. This is why even the study of stupidity requires an application of intelligence, i.e. one can be stupid about stupidity. So we need to be careful in attending to the specificities of the rich field of exploration that has opened up in our India.
On the basis of our Indian experience, I would like to add a fifth “law”: there is a high correlation between stupidity and a lack of a sense of humour. Thus, the JNU boys come out from their harrowing experience of jail, spunky and buoyant, and mock their captors with verve and wit, with style and sass. All that their critics could manage was to wave flags and froth at the mouth about “nationalism”.
That we are suffering from an epidemic of stupidity should not need very strenuous demonstration. First there was the person placed by Smriti Irani at the head of the Indian Council for Historical Research, Y. Sudershan Rao, a man whose complete innocence of the discipline of history was matched only by his chutzpah in demanding a massive monthly retainer for his talents. Then there’s Gajendra Chauhan at the Film and Television Institute of India, and the men in charge of the censor board. There are also other players, without a formal role in the drama: Anupam Kher, who has re-invented himself as the “ideas man” of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the lachrymose general who wants to install a tank on the university campus to instill a feeling of “nationalism”, and all those vice-chancellors, who lined up to fly big, tall flags.
An epidemic it certainly is – and it is by no means certain that we will survive it. But there is at least one question that must be asked, before we fall silent, and reconcile ourselves to whatever calamity the future brings: is this rampant stupidity merely incidental – a mere chance occurrence, a contingent effect of a random concatenation of jesters – or is it, as I fear, intentional? Poor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, universally respected historian, certainly one of the brightest of his generation, attracted the anger of the trolls by suggesting ever so gently that perhaps the problem had to do with a fundamental intellectual deficit in the BJP: they just ain’t got the firepower. The trolls were not amused, and demanded to know who this Sanjay fellow was – which sort of made his point.
Method in the madness
But something is nudging me in the direction of a darker hypothesis: this carnival of “stupidity”, this cast of characters performing on cue as it were, is indeed an orchestrated phenomenon – and the conductors of this orchestra are no fools. The simple point of their strategy is that such aggressively administered stupidity is stupefying. It is too much of a struggle keeping the daily battering at bay – “nationalism”; “beef”; sedition triggered by calling a public meeting at the Press Club in the heart of the capital; slogans in the dark; Sufi platitudes, and two bodies dangling from a tree in Jharkhand, whose chief minister, bless him, likes to talk about how it is illegal to transport cattle out of the state. Well, those dangling bodies won’t be transporting anything any more, sir – but is it alright already to lynch people?
Merely appointing stupid people, whether by compulsion – the well-known intellectual deficit – or design – the stupefaction strategy – is insufficient. A programme is needed, whereby all this stupidity can be operationalised, and put to work. And this is where the discourse of “anti-national” comes in.
Even a mediocre undergraduate would question whether there is something singular called “the nation”, which is primeval, and eternal, and god-given. In point of fact, there are many notions of the nation, many ideas of India. And even the idea of India favoured by the Sanghis – masculinist and brahminical – is only one “idea”, though colour-coded activists – in saffron and khaki and black – are used in order to enforce the one idea, and so try to silence the necessary conversation of nationalisms. In fact, the jostling of competing nationalisms in the public space – explicit and implicit, articulate and inarticulate, but always within the rules of civil discourse – is the very stuff of democratic politics.
As it happens, my own idea of India is altogether softer and perhaps even somewhat feminine, inspired by a notion of antyodaya that encompasses more than the mere human world, and takes in animals, and even our lovely, infinitely-suffering mother, Earth. Oh yes, I know this is romantic, and almost certainly unrealizable, but it is also – such is my democratic right – a part of the “national” mix.
Gradually, slowing, almost unbeknownst to oneself, one succumbs, surrenders to the welcoming waters. The successive, progressive doses of stupidity function like a kind of anaesthesia – or is this too a kind of infection, your honour? Gradually, the basis of consciousness, of discourse, shifts. Instead of moral clarity – killing people is wrong, attacking the innocent and the vulnerable is wrong – one is soon splitting hairs about whether watching a film about Muzaffarnagar is wrong, and even whether wanting to watch such a film is wrong? Uttering “anti-national” slogans, they say, endangers the foundations of the state, but listening to such utterance is also seditious. Is it alright to hang people – even “terrorist” people, your honour – to appease a collective, and how large a collective does one need? And suddenly one finds oneself in the realm of that collective insanity for which an earlier historical period used the F word. The necessary foundation for this collective insanity, this suicidal madness, is stupidity.
Alok Rai is a writer who taught at Delhi University and Allahabad University