When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, he was a frail man, disappointed and also withdrawn from national politics. He was 78 years old, and one thought it was a travesty that a person who spoke tirelessly of non-violence all his life met a violent death. But it now looks it was not happenstance; almost 70 years later we are now witnessing a series of events that echo it.
It began with the murders of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and Kalburgi – all of them into their 70s, and more recently the arrest of Varavara Rao, and now Stan Swamy, both into their 80s. The silent but unmistakable ageism in the way the Right in India thinks will hold important clues to how they see life and the nihilism, and contempt for anyone considered vulnerable. What can explain the series of killings and arrests of octogenarians, and what could be the possible message that they wish to communicate?
There seems to be a mix of factors as to how activists who are old, ageing and ailing seem to be picked up and made a spectacle of. It immediately communicates certain ruthlessness and recklessness. Varavara who was once known to be a powerful public speaker was struggling to find the right words and who was known to have an elephant’s memory failing to recognise his own family. All stress-induced symptoms also come with ageing. But repeated refusals to grant bail and machinations to keep him in prison are a clear message of seeing this as a fight to finish.
It symbolises a predatory culture where one can either be a victor or the vanquished. Targeting the old seems to bring a sense of doomsday where there is no escape for the rest if the old and ailing are not spared.
It seems to also resonate with the idea of a strong nation that has little space and patience for the ‘unproductive bodies’. It brings back the memories of Nazi rule that targeted not just the Jews but also the disabled White German kids and put them through the same gas chambers. It symbolises a kind of ‘productivism’ of both the market and the nation. If one is not of ‘use’ and not productive it is not immoral to dispense with them.
This, figuratively, seems to stand in opposition to the young and productive nation that is looking ahead. By default making a spectacle of the old and ageing seem to also signify that the values and ideologies they stood for are outdated and irrelevant. Shrinking bodies become the templates for conveying coded message of fading ideas and upend value system.
The recent video of Stan Swamy complaining of ailments and yet remaining steadfast for the values he stood for in fighting for the tribals can send a message of unflinching commitment, but it can also mean they are stretching themselves at a time when they needed to retire and spend time with grandkids, be contemplative and await the inevitable.
In Hindu philosophy, it signifies an age to move towards vanaprastha and sanyasa referring to giving up worldly pursuits. It goes with the symbolism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi meditating in the cave and taking a lonely walk between the election results and announcing 75 as a cut off year to hold administrative posts in state or central governments. He had moved the ageing leaders to a freshly minted Margadarshak Mandal.
The Right seems to believe that given the cultural codes of Hindu way of life, dispensing with the old will meet less protest and resistance from the society. It creates a scope for more fear and less resistance. The suffering they are being put through seems to be seen through the prism of a calculus of how many more years are really left and society would forgive and may be even forget the excesses more easily but the message of being ruthless and un-pardoning slowly seeps in.
While the arrests of young men brings a spirit of resistance that can inspire the society, incarcerating the old makes us more contemplative, look at the meaning and purpose of life, and we associate it less with action. It brings in a sense of nihilism, reminding us of the inevitability of death and futility of suffering. It reminds us of a time for other worldly pursuits as is poignantly reminded to us in the film Mukti Bhawan. In fact, in much of religious philosophy, death is Moksha, a kind of liberation for the corporeal self and body and is not something to grieve over, much less resist.
Ageing reminds us of a sense of loneliness that awaits us with a deep sense of vulnerability. It reminds us of the need to plan for one’s safety and care and pursuit of collective interest and heroic activism can cost you not just your life but the bare needs necessary for an ageing body. It can have deep roots in psychology of creating innate insecurity; the Right consciously targets sites that harbour our latent and dark selves.
Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar notes how rumours of poisoned milk being sold are spread during communal riots as figuratively milk symbolises a primordial maternal security. It can arouse latent fears and insecurities and primordial instinct for violence. In killing and arresting the old and ageing, the Right is targeting a psychological warfare on its own society to disempower and silence it.
It is an empowering irony to watch and get inspired by the dadis of Shaheen Bagh where Bilkis Bano symbolises the new hope. Her age evokes happiness, love and mischief. It transcends social boundaries of religion and place. Time magazine listed her in 100 ‘most influential’ people of 2020.
Life moves through dialectics, as the current regime looks at the underside of age, dadis of Shaheen Bagh are reminding us of what Mark Twain once famously said: ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ Age brings the best of lighter side of life and reminds us of taking life with a pinch of salt and standing for causes well beyond one’s immediate interest could possibly be the most meaningful way of living one’s life. Collective resistance needs to upturn the cynical spectacle in resisting for and celebrating the lives of these ageing soldiers of salvation and emancipation.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.