Lata Mani in conversation with Arvind Narrain
Arvind: You say that to think of love as the freedom to discover the truths of relationality is to reimagine politics? How?
Lata: It is to recast politics as a multiplicitous understanding of various forms of embeddedness and interrelations. It cannot be this vs. that, this or that. We cannot conceive of society as discrete sectors which intersect based on their shared interests. It’s hard for me to say what a new language would be. It would have to be crafted in conversation and reimagined in a way that starts from love and not from, let’s just call it “not-love,” which could be rage or grief or frustration. Politics can find its anchorage point in deep sorrow about injustice. Some politics are actually rooted in hatred. But if we were to think about what a politics based on love would look like, the language and imagination of politics would gradually undergo transformation. It is often thought that love means not being discerning, love means accepting everything just as it is. It cannot be that if you are working with a definition of love as a commitment to the truths of relationality.
Arvind: Fascinating. In effect what you are saying is that love can be way of thinking about the way you relate to the world and out of that emerges a different way of constructing your relationships to people, to politics in the broadest sense. You are talking about how you transform the way you lead your life in an everyday sense and that has implications across the board. I think it is a great philosophical project of taking forward a vision of an ideal life, an ideal society. It would be a great project to think of what a just society would be like starting from the bottom up, from relationality and love.
Lata: Sometimes we forget that politics is really a struggle for a new form of life. We get focused on particular issues and hierarchize the issues. If we are talking about a new form of life, we have to remember that at the end of the day we all have to live together. If we cast politics as a dialectical fight to the finish, about who wrestles whom down to the ground, then I can’t see how we then get up and live together. The way we conduct our struggles for justice has to build into it that we are striving to live with each other. You see it starkly in the Israeli attack on Gaza right now [August 2014]. The only future for Israelis and Palestinians is living together whether they live in two states or in a single state. There is no other future possible. Israel is not going to be able to kill every single Palestinian.
On all sides unless we can imagine how we can live together even as we are engaging each other in the ways that we must, we will be in a situation where we will have all the right laws and it will make no difference. If you sow the seeds of hate or distrust or dislike, how will we live together? Our practice of it has to embody in incipient form our imagination of the society toward which we are moving.
Arvind: Where would we say that people have taken this project forward? Which kind of communities, which societies, which groupings have this incipient vision of the world to come in the way they organize and come together? That should be the point right? Take Tibetan self-determination. Tibet should be a society that is different. It can’t be a Tibetan nation state with an army. But then once again that is almost impossible in the world we live in because if assuming Tibet gets independence and does not have an army, what happens vis a vis China? So it is a transformation that is not possible only within the nation state framework; it has to be wider than that.
Lata: I agree. I think one can have small experiments. The most recent example I can think of are those little patches that were taken up by the Occupy movement. It’s a very small and local example. They had recycling, free libraries etc. You can say it’s a First World setting and certainly the larger problems in US society of race and class etc. were in evidence. But they tried in the few blocks that they were allowed to occupy for a certain time to structure things in the way they felt the larger society could learn from and could be restructured along the lines of. There were also various kinds of twentieth century experiments with communes, collectives etc. Each had their own problems.
But what one can say is that politics has to cease to be the practice of agonism. As long as politics is an agonistic practice we cannot reimagine it. And it’s quite possible that the framework of the nation state and all that comes with nationalism would need to be thrown out. Take India and Pakistan. If we stopped thinking nationally and started thinking civilizationally we would have to draw our maps very, very differently. When I say civilization, I don’t mean it as a code word for Hinduism. I mean civilization as a broad term for the multiple currents that shape the weave of life over a given geographical area at whose edges it starts to take on other forms. Perhaps by the time you get to Baluchistan it starts to look different. But there was something that united this area. The trouble that Pakistan finds itself in - and India is under the kind of thinking that guides the BJP - is that it is refusing its history. To refuse your history is an act of violence. The memory of that history continues. There is a constant violence being done to the possibility of what Pakistan and India could be.
Arvind: What’s troubling is the war on precisely the idea of civilization. ISIS, for example, is waging a war on the idea of Mesopotamia. India is not exempt from that kind of thinking, right?
Lata: Absolutely not. If you want to turn every mosque, temple, gurudwara and church into a potentially conflictual site it won’t be long before that kind of horror is visited on us. It is already here and will only become more common.
But the thing that keeps me buoyant despite the terrible state of the world is my feeling that since relationality is written into the very DNA of the universe, movements that defy that logic or principle cannot sustain themselves ad infinitum. Why is non-violence visited with such violence? Somewhere the state understands the moral power of non-violence. You could ask which non-violent movement has won the revolution; but that is neither here nor there. I am talking about the way non-violence produces a hysterical response from the state out of all proportion to the threat it represents. So even as you look at the horror of the bigger picture, you might want to go back to first principles and remember again that the idea of relationality is not an ideal but a fact; a reality one is making a commitment to remember, and renew, and build on the basis of. Why? Because it is true, not because one wishes it were true! And climate change, even more than globalization, has forced this reality to the center of our consciousness.
Arvind: If you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement you can say it has not been successful. But it has put the idea of inequality on the table, you can’t avoid it. And the issue of Palestine-Israel is a failure to recognize relationality; that is the core of the problem.
Lata: Yes. And Israel has been so caught up in its miasma that the government is no longer even aware how ludicrous it sounds. Just as apartheid at a certain point became unthinkable, this current stalemate is becoming unthinkable. So when the Israeli ambassador to the US says in the midst of the assault on Gaza that Israel should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for restraint, he has no idea how absurd it sounds. They have lost touch with ground realities.
Arvind: Absolutely. They’ve gone to such extremes, built a wall, walled off the entire area, made it a prison. Where do they think they are going?
Lata: There is a way in which if you live on the basis of a lie, it becomes impossible to see the truth. Part of the insistence on reminding us of love, or reminding us of relationality is so we are not unrealistic. We have drifted so far from first principles, that to say what is fundamentally true seems romantic, idealistic.
For the most part, what we are dealing with in what we imagine to be “politics” is what the state would want us to think is going on and/or what society would want us to think is going on. What is actually going on is something else. We may have to temporarily suspend our frames of reference to really observe what is going on. If you do you will not just re-remember the facts of relationality. You will also see what the stuff of everyday life consists of: people trying to make community, trying to make meaning, trying to find livelihoods, trying to live together with their differences. And then there are hierarchical ideas and structures like caste, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, identity, sexuality etc., which are trying to mobilize all these life processes in narrow ways to divisive and oppressive ends. And it is these ways of remaking what actually is that take up all of our attention; this is the stuff of what we call “politics.” I am not saying these two levels are separate, they are deeply intermeshed. But to not build from life processes, to forget that politics as we currently understand it only partially captures them is to act on the wrong basis.
Arvind: We have traveled from the idea love as a relationship between two people to concerns at a more global level. I guess the question is: how does this notion of love play out in the lives of people, what it is that one can do? Is it a question of appealing to intelligence in terms of people thinking differently? Is it question of appealing to emotions, to feelings? Where does the shift happen?
Siddharth Narrain was recently sharing his experience of a presentation against the death penalty in a local Bangalore college. He said that at the end of that presentation not one student or teacher (apart from the one teacher who had invited him) was convinced. They were like, “you don’t understand what it is like.” The emotional response to the horror of the deed was so strong that there was no way to argue the fact that you need to take relationality seriously vis a vis the accused.
With the death penalty we argue in the language of reason: that deterrence does not work, that retribution does not work, that we should think of another way of going about it. Or you make the argument that the death penalty is morally, philosophically, ethically wrong. None of which moves our audience at all. How do you take forward a certain kind of politics based on love in an issue like this? There seems to be a call for those who believe in a politics of love to develop their own resources on how to address these issues in a way that connects to people.
Lata: It is a real challenge. First we need to acknowledge the fact that the arguments for the death penalty are entirely emotional. But more broadly, we are dealing with a situation in which over and over in our political debates the language of reason is failing to convey itself. We have as many facts as we need at our fingertips. But it seems as though once a stand has been taken people are not willing to move. When you see that the language of reason is not working you think, okay, we must appeal to the heart. But we would be appealing to the heart in context where a particularly demagogic notion of emotionality prevails. What do we do?
I would suggest (and this is a strategy I follow in my own work) that in a highly contentious arena when emotions are running high we find oblique ways of stating the truth. We go at it sideways, not front and center. I don’t know if you have seen Buddhists monks walking along busy streets ringing their bell or chanting silently. Some equivalent of that is what is required, something so authentic that people will at least stop and notice; “She really means what she says.” “He is 100% present in what he is saying.” It may not make me change my mind but I will probably not forget what was said because it is a moment of realness. And it’s a moment of realness that is not a manipulation of emotion.
We should not make the mistake of assuming that if we fail to persuade we are doing something wrong. In fact I would say that in a world that is so merciless in judging success and failure by immediate consequence and result, we should shy away from that way of thinking altogether. We should see ourselves as being here for the long haul. We should try and find out what it is about the death penalty that appeals. Is it some notion of instant gratification? Is it the desire for an affirmation that justice can be served? And if that is the case, is it a displacement of a general frustration that nobody who should be caught gets caught coming together with a particularly emotive issue? What is appealing about the death penalty?
Once we understand that, it might be possible to take up those concerns; not necessarily in relation to the death penalty but in relation to allied issues and by doing that open a space, a psychic space. And commit to being authentic and real, bringing together body, mind and heart. When you do that, you are not manipulating emotionality the way in which it is manipulated by the demagogues of our time. We need to appeal to the heart. And emotion is not just the heart. Mind also has emotion. Half the time demagogues are appealing to the emotion of the mind.
Arvind: It’s interesting. If you think of someone like Gandhi, his ability to communicate lay not just in what he said but who he was, the way his words and his life came together. It calls for an ethical life. That’s what communicates. K. Balagopal, the human rights lawyer, is a similar example.
Lata: And here we come back to love as a process that transforms the self, not just the other. Love is not an instrument that you use to appeal to the other, to convince the other, to coerce the other gently. Love has to act without expectation. Love has to be. But love has to be really discerning. Love has to be really clear. Love has to be as critical as it needs to be about what is not right. But it has to be persistent from a space of expansiveness. Because hopefully, the recognition of love and the importance of relationality will at least feed you, even if at this point, it is not feeding your listeners. Even if your listeners are not able to access it for one or other reason, if you discover the transformative power of love and you are able to embody it, in the generosity that you bring and in the authenticity of your expression and conduct something about what you say will leave a trace and over time perhaps initiate a journey in the consciousness of others. I don’t think we should assume a lack of success because we are not being successful right now. We might just have to wait before we can be heard.
Arvind: I think you’re right. Gandhi - at no point in time was everyone ready to follow what he said. But it did not take away from the power of what he was saying, the appeal of what he was saying. And that appeal brought together body, mind and speaking in a way that is very powerful. Take, Foucault’s notion of parrhesia or fearless speech; speech where you put your life at risk. It is not speech which is artifice; it is not speech which is rhetoric. It is speech which is deeply connected to your life. Speaking it is a form of communication about not just your words but your life as well. And that’s a power that nobody can resist. The state can’t take that lying down when that kind of powerful speech comes together.
How does one do that? It is something to think through. How does one do that in all the work one does? How does one do that in context of the death penalty?
Lata: Next time someone calls you to speak about the death penalty, rather than give a factual presentation you can present an epistolary dialogue between two people, one for the death penalty and one against; a performance piece. In that exchange you can include, facts, many of the arguments, you can also take the opposing point of view seriously. And you might get them to think. I don’t think going frontally is the thing to do in this time. A more creative mode of engaging is needed.
Arvind: Great suggestion, the way in which it’s a dialogic thing in which the opposing viewpoint is taken seriously, not a straw man to be destroyed.
Lata: The viewpoint is taken seriously. Partly we need to get to deeper levels of what is going on for people and they may or may not be consciously aware of these. So it would be important to sit with people who are for the death penalty and say, tell me more, tell me more, tell me more. Then you will get something of the emotional profile and architecture of their position. Once you are able to get that, you can address it. And we need to do the same for ourselves, uncover our emotional architecture. We spoke earlier of the triad of fearlessness, vulnerability, love. You have to allow vulnerability to be an aspect of your fearlessness; not just others’ vulnerability but your own. To do this is to truly embrace relationality.
More on activism in unedited conversation on Dharma, The Earth on its Axis, We in Our Skin, listen here.