Humour is ubiquitous; it bursts out even in the face of death. Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian political mastermind, cracked a joke before his last breath: “I desire to go to Hell and not to Heaven. In the former I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks and apostles!” As a double-edged sword, humour is capable of inducing light-hearted moments and heavy thoughts. It is a mighty weapon in political and social discourse, an example being Socrates and his subtle and scorching critiques of decaying Athenian society and politics.
The danger today
Like the glory that was Greece fell apart, the wonder that is India is in danger of imploding. India’s constitutional cornerstone, which is the Rock of Gibraltar of the Republic, is being shaken. The darkness of totalitarianism seems to be falling upon the edifice of our Republic. We can either cry over the evidence of the downfall of the beloved country or crack jokes to detonate the darkness.
Arvind Narrain, in his book, India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitutionalism and the Politics of Resistance, is of the opinion that India is slouching towards a totalitarian future. He observes: “the ambitions of a totalitarian government are far wider and its abilities far deeper than those of an authoritarian one. A totalitarian rule goes beyond retaining total control over the State to trying to ‘politicize the masses’ and shaping individuals in accordance with its ideology. It draws its strength and support not just from its control over the levers of the State but also from organizational fronts which work at the societal level, aiming to transform society in terms of its ideology. A combination of these factors — of having an ideology as well as many organizational fronts — results in totalitarianism having an ‘appeal’, compared with the ‘generally passive acceptance of authoritarian regimes’.” India experienced an authoritarian regime during the Emergency. But the Republic’s metamorphosis into a totalitarian political system is a dark novelty that demands innovative paraphernalia for the politics of resistance.
In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt discerned two contradictory popular responses towards totalitarianism — a mood of ‘reckless optimism’ and a belief in ‘unavoidable doom’. Arvind Narrain points out that in “India today, where the dominant mood in progressive circles is hardly one of ‘reckless optimism’, what one is left with is ‘reckless despair’. To find hope in the midst of this despair is difficult.” Here lies the weightiness of humour. Humour can inspire hope, as hope is a powerful thing. It inspires us to do the impossible and helps us carry on during difficult times.
Three days after the Emergency, there was this obituary published among the classified advertisements in The Times of India, on June 28, 1975. It read: “O’Cracy, D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justicia, expired on June 26.” Journalist Ashok Mahadevan, then 26, punched the authoritarian regime with an obituary of 22 words that mourned the sad demise of democracy, along with its allied ideals of truth, liberty, faith, hope and justice. The death of democracy was duly dated in 1975.
In our times, constitutional democracy is inching towards a persistent vegetative state, a death without a date of demise, an obituary, mourning, and a funeral. ‘Operation Lotus’, a machination to torpedo elected governments in States, has become a quotidian affair and elections and democratic civility, in danger of becoming a black comedy. The citizenry cannot laugh at the Gallows speech of constitutional democracy; nor can it be a silent spectator.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.” He exposed the vanity and the pomp of the British Empire at the cost of India’s destitution by explaining why he had so little clothes on. In this example attributed to an event around the Round Table Conference in London, he said: ‘The king had enough [clothes] on for both of us”.
The ingredients needed
Anarchism and democracy are the anti-theses and antidotes for totalitarianism. Anarchism conceives the state to be unnecessary and any form of government undesirable. It presumes that man is basically a rational, honest and just animal. Therefore, if society is organised properly, then there will be no room for any kind of coercion. It is a utopian ideology indeed but it has some practical relevance.
An anarchic vision of society is non-violent, self-managed and non-hierarchical. Anarchist thinkers hold dear to the ideal of democracy — rule by the people. “The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence,” said Mahatma Gandhi, who was a blissful anarchist. Democracy would be perfected by imbibing some idyllic dreams from anarchism.
Anarchism and democracy espouse humour; whereas totalitarianism demands the silence of the grave. Works like The Good Soldier Švejk, by the Czech anarchist author, Jaroslav Hašek, which is a hilarious satire of military life, ridicules war and the state. So is Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy who was a Christian anarchist, a pacifist who renounced the state as violent and deceitful. Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s film, The Dictator (2012), are black comedy films that underscore that humour can mercilessly humiliate totalitarian and authoritarian despots and debunk their larger-than-life image.
The virus of totalitarianism which is highly fatal has almost infected India. The immune system of the Republic, the constitutional ideals and structure, has to fight off the virus. The antiviral medicines, a few souring pills of Gandhian anarchism at a minimal dose, and the sweet syrup of humour and democracy at maximum dose, would be an advisable course of medication.
Faisal C.K. is an independent researcher interested in constitutional law and political philosophy