Disha Ravi, Greta Thunberg and the Existential Rebellion the World Needs to Save Itself

The crises of our world – climatic, democratic, technological, financial, epidemic – can no longer be understood or be contained within the logic of nation states.

I would like my books to be a kind of tool box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area.

– Michel Foucault

On February 14, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old woman from Bangalore, was arrested by the Delhi police and charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy. We are told that she is participating in a global social media campaign to support the farmers protesting across India against the new farm laws and that this equals attempting “to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”. Particularly, she is accused of modifying a document which is classified as a ‘toolkit’ created for coordinating social media campaigns and protests to help the protesting farmers of India. We should note that “toolkit” may now appear to be an incendiary term for many Indians, however it is an ordinary document used by any organisation of people to coordinate and make their actions effective.

The worldwide dimension of the campaign for India’s farmers which received support from Greta Thunberg, Rihanna, and Meena Harris among others should be understood properly. The crises of our world – climatic, democratic, technological, financial, epidemic – can no longer be understood or be contained within the logic of nation states. Rather, everything befalls everyone everywhere such that pandemic—that which befalls the demos (the people) of the pan (the whole)—is the name for the state of the world. Even to begin a resolution towards addressing these crises would require the beginnings of a democracy of the world, of which the movements led by Thunberg are a part. This is not the utopia of ‘world government’ but a cause that is shared by everyone.

The global dimension of capitalistic exigencies is somewhat known to the rulers and their supporters who seem to work according to the ‘toolkit’ of the day in television studios, newspaper columns and social media. After all, when it comes to the very farm laws, which will deprive the farmers of whatever autonomy and minimal existential assurances they have today, the supporters of the laws cite the globalised food market and American farming practices as examples. In India, the ‘urgency’ which made the government dubiously bypass parliamentary procedures in order to bring in the new laws seems to point to the insatiable urges of just two corporations and soon, criticising them might constitute sedition, as is already being suggested.

However, our attention in India should be on a more important question—what is the name for the political arrangement that we now are? To say that this is not democracy is not abominable to the high officials and the lowly trolls of the present dispensation, though it might be difficult to hear for those who continue to hope for a tolerable regime to appear in the near future.

There is a story which expresses the substance problem in philosophy, which is about that which makes a particular thing what it is. In the story a man in Washington DC sells George Washington’s axe everyday. One day, someone asks the salesman, “Sir, I’d like to buy this axe, but the blade seems too new to me. Is it really the axe of George Washington?” The salesman replies “Of course it is the very same axe of Washington, I just changed out the blade twice when it was rusty and the handle thrice because of termites”. The question then is what is it that we are selling to our young students and activists, increasingly women, who are languishing in our prisons?

There is never anything like a “democracy” in the sense of a political arrangement where the wishes of all individuals are fulfilled or even those of a majority of individuals; the former is ruled out by the finitude of existence and the latter is potentially the very abolishment of such an arrangement, for that is how democratic arguments are used in order to end democratic systems. Instead, democracy is a very young promise of a very young experiment in human history. It relies on mutually agreed protocols and rules for collective deliberations and actions with the additional protocols to criticise and verify these very rules of collective action.

A functioning democracy, which is always going to be an inadequate democracy, is made up of components which are more or less autonomous with respect to one another such as the legislature, judiciary, executive, the media, the universities, and electoral procedures. The components have their own laws. For example, in the house of legislature a member can speak that which cannot be spoken outside it, as shown by the Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra recently. An academic can critically comment on the component laws and functions of the judiciary unlike a member of the judiciary itself.

The law which comprehends all these components is not the constitution, but something that exceeds it towards the open and unknown concerns of the future, still guided by the very promise of maintaining this very system of collective deliberations and actions. In other words, the comprehending law of a political arrangement, as long as it is worthy of being called a democratic experiment, cannot be stated exhaustively.

Democracies exist so long as they guard the democratic promise which exceeds the democratic arrangements. However, the many laws, state actions and court judgments which we have witnessed in India over the past few decades have systematically betrayed this democratic promise by misusing the very democratic institutions and procedures. No political party in India can be exonerated from this crime against democratic promise.

When one of the components of the political arrangement seizes all the other components of a political arrangement, it initiates the end of the very system. The Greeks called it stasis, which is one of the designations of evil. That is, we continue to misname that in which we are. This condition of stasis – which can be specified as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, fascism, Nazism, dictatorship – certainly enables some men of business. Legislations which are delayed and made uncertain by deliberative democratic processes are bad for their business. Now, many governments across the world are merely the market places for the laws.

We have found in recent years that the charges raised and the evidence presented against activists who are convinced of their critique, and who continue to adhere to the democratic promise, are almost always ludicrous. Recently we learnt of the planting of evidence in the computers of activists to arrest them under extraordinary provisions of the law. Last year, a young girl was made to suffer in prison for raising slogans, and several young women are languishing in our prisons without bail for attempting to break Brahminical patriarchal chains. When we look at the sickening anti-miscegenation laws brought by the states and the anti-miscegenation vigilante action against inter-caste and inter-religious relations across the country, something appears clearly. There is an attempt at ethnic/religious purification for which all societies have crushed the freedoms of women.

In India the non-governmental paramilitary ‘organisational famiglia, also known as the “Sangh parivar”, is fantasising about the ideal Indian woman who will be the domestic goddess to those outside her homes and merely the devoted supplicant to her father, brother, husband and son inside.

The latest arrest of Disha Ravi too should be seen in the same light. It is no different from the  incarceration of young women fighting for their freedom of movement and other rights. All these prisons reveal the true wall of democracy today – it bears the names Disha Ravi, Nikita Jacob, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Devangana Kalita, Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal, Hadiya, Nodeep Kaur, Ishrat Jahan, Rhea Chakravarty among countless others, and they are spilling over. The prison guards should know that women broke free of the oldest of prisons and these new ones are a day’s work in comparison.

Democracy is a collective deliberation and action based on rules and protocols which are themselves open to perpetual examination. In a functioning democracy, the courts would have laughed at the officials and governments which parade these innocents under ludicrous charges and fantastical evidence. But in India,  day after day charges which try to outdo one another in ridiculousness are brought before our judges and they continue to bring the hammer down on poor souls, abdicating their judicial duties. If sharing “toolkits” is a crime then Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and other philosophers might soon emerge as global conspirators who will then be charged by the police under sedition laws.

Notwithstanding the tolerable outcomes which emerge from the courts from time time – bail here, a stay order there – the fact is that each and every component of what was the Indian experiment in democracy today is competing to enable an extra-constitutional Sangh parivar to destroy the final remaining functions and institutions of the experiment. Which component will become the most rewarded arm of the fascist state is the question.

In spite of all the examples of global authoritarianism, we know that human beings – with their desire for freedoms, their ever-growing shared concerns in the face of global crises – cannot survive within totalitarian arrangements. Totalitarianisms are paranoid about the very thing which allows humanity to accrue the mutations through which it will meet the exigencies of the future –i.e. the creation of knowledge and freedoms. They fear anything which may weaken their ever-rusting iron fists, especially this new generation of thinkers and activists who are able to acutely perceive the imminent crises of this world. If the present turn away from democracy continues any longer it will indeed be catastrophic for all, whether in India or elsewhere – including for those who today defend this turn in the name of market efficiency and the so called ‘success’ of the ‘Chinese model’. The fact is that totalitarianisms everywhere are the most serious threat to the very existence of human beings today.

The ‘extinction rebellion’ of Greta Thunberg and her friends correctly perceives in the ecological crises an impending disaster which threatens to extinguish humanity itself. However, it is evident that the ethos of Thunberg’s civil disobedience model presupposes democratic conditions. Therefore, the concerns of the activists of extinction rebellion must necessarily expand, especially in this context of the hunting down of the young women and men who believe in the democratic promise. The world needs as existential rebellion of all peoples everywhere against totalitarianisms of all kinds. The existential rebellion will then be the revolt everywhere against those who are attempting to shatter the democratic promise.

Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are philosophers based in the subcontinent.