Dear Trolls & Anti-Trolls, Read Rig Veda to Learn Art of Dissent

At a time when trolls & anti-trolls are at each other’s throats, it’s important to learn how to agree to disagree.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

At a time when activists who defended the right of dalits and tribals to protest against an oppressive state have been placed under house arrest, and the Supreme Court has had to step in and scold the government and remind us all of the importance of dissent – let me take you to the source of the ‘D word’ – the Rig Veda.

The Rig Veda and Dissent

It’s a passage from a fantastic compendium edited by Ashok Vajpeyi called India Dissents – 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument (published by Speaking Tiger in 2017). And it firmly puts the Sangh Parivar claimants to all things Hindu in their place, when they distort religion, and remove its essential ingredient – dissent. Because in the Rig Veda, written in verse between 1500 and 1200 BCE, over 3,000 years ago, is the following:

“But who really knows? Who can tell where all arose?
For the gods themselves came after Creation.
Who then shall proclaim how Creation happened?
Then He, who created all that is, or did not,
Who looks upon everything from the highest heaven,
He alone knows. Or maybe He too does not.”

(Translated by Sharad Raghav)

The five people arrested this week by the police are, by all accounts, modern day upholders of this great and glorious tradition of dissent.

Sudha Bharadwaj for instance, gave up her American citizenship and moved to Chhattisgarh to work with tribals in distress, and in need of free legal aid. Gautam Navlakha – an activist with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), who has spent decades fighting for people whose constitutionally guaranteed rights have been taken from them.

It’s tough to dissent when you know what price you might pay for it. And equally tough to critique people on the same side as you, for not delivering on their promises. The right-wing has one thing absolutely right about us on the left. We often cannot stomach criticism. I include myself here. I can quite easily be a pretender. A voyeur. And have been pulled up for it by friends for describing a rape or mob violence with “too much relish.”

Filmmaker Q and his ‘Garbage’

So I am using this space of dissent to call out a friend whose politics and work I admire, for his new film, about to be released on Netflix. The film is called ‘Garbage’ and it’s made by my filmmaker friend Q, or Qaushiq. In his name is his “rejection of all things Bengali”, so the K went out of his name and became Q.

He burst onto the alternate, underground film space with ‘Gandu’ in 2010. A film with a young, wannabe Bengali rapper from a ghetto in Kolkata.

The film is a coming-of-age with a lot of explicit sex thrown in, as a celebration of what we normally shy away from. It makes its point by showing the male eponymous protagonist Gandu, erect and masturbating. Then in a fantasy with a woman of his dreams who gives him a full-frontal blow job towards the end of the film. So of course, the film never made it to multiplexes in India, nor was it intended to be. But it made it to film festivals from Berlinale to Slamdance, with critical acclaim for its candour and style.

(Mis)Representation of Tribal Women in ‘Garbage’

‘Garbage’ aims even higher. It tells the story of a taxi driver called Phanishwar, whose only salvation is the ultra-right and militant Hindutva outfit called the Sanathan Sanstha. This could be a dark and unsparing look at the connection between perverse sexuality and perverse politics. However, in the very first scene, Q presents Phanishwar’s victim with such relish and erotica, that it takes away from the story.

The scene is of a tribal woman slave from Jharkhand, who Phanishwar imprisons in his house in Goa as his personal slave girl.

Except she stands posing like a model in a crumpled white sari-cloth from which her perfectly round boobs continually pop out. She has no story. She moans and grunts. She is hearing and speech impaired, so she only gesticulates.

That Phanishwar or any man for that matter can make a woman his slave, is perfectly believable. But it is incumbent upon the filmmaker to explain this, and contextualize the story.

Instead, the woman is made to behave like an animal. The tribal deaf and dumb slave animal. She does not walk. She jumps like a frog. She sticks her tongue out. And in one scene, she stares at Phanishwar, inserts her finger into her vagina, draws out some dark menstrual blood, and smears it on her forehead as sindoor. And some around her eye, turning the scene into a sexy photo op – the stuff of male desire, and completely removed from anything tribal I have ever seen. Or read.

More to a Woman than Her Rape and Humiliation

The plot has more problems, as it unfolds that Phanishwar is in love with a big city girl whose boyfriend has uploaded a sex video of her onto porn sites. By playing the video over and over, and reducing her entire story to one emotion of fear and disgust, by making it a singular story, Q ends up taking the film right back into the troll space where such fantasies are currently played out. Must a woman’s – whose pictures have been tossed into porn sites – whole life revolve ever after only around that one fact?

The obsession with the hate and fantasy and pictures, to the point of obliterating all other parts of her story, takes away from so much work being done on the ground to undo this.

Rape and revenge porn do not become the only defining story of a woman once this has happened to her. To tell this as a singular story, is to take away the dissent from the dissent. To do what many of us including me are often guilty of. Did we describe Nirbhaya’s rape too vividly, so that in the months and years that followed, there is now a sliding scale of horror?

‘How was she raped? Oh… no rods shoved, just a finger inserted into her vagina? That’s not much… the guy shouldn’t have to do so much jail time’ – are some real conversations I have been witness to as a result.

Even the Dissenters Must Learn ‘True Dissent’

Being well-meaning deserves a salute. Q is choosing difficult, in fact impossible stories to tell. But dissent is a demanding tool, and with the right positioning comes an even greater responsibility. Not to feed the trolls but to counter them. The counter can occupy the “You fuck me I’ll fuck you” space, but that only makes the trolls fatter. To thin them out, you have to get outside the hideous and consumptive. You have to give women who have been attacked, stories with all their layers and complexity. You have to see them laugh and have fun. And not embody just the fact of their abuse all the time.

You have to see tribals as people with agency, and craft and sophistication. Even if the particular protagonist you choose cannot speak or hear.

Or you will end up doing to them what Joseph Conrad did in his novel Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. And seen from the eyes of a white imperialist, who was both fascinated by and terrified of the natives.

Fascination and terror leave little room for understanding.

But that was 1899. It should not be the space we occupy today. I am using Q’s new film as a lesson to myself. To not flip like a pancake and end up being horrified by the abuse and hate I am surrounded by. But to cut through those extreme manifestations, and try and understand why the hate exists, and what it would take for someone like me to become that person.

That is far more disruptive. It’s the kind of work that could perhaps explain why some of the activists that are now under attack, have been targeted in the first place.

I’d say, let’s try even one line from the Rig Veda verse I started with. Can we imagine a space where we say that God came after Creation? I aspire to that. Please pull me up when I fail.

(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author ofThe Anatomy of Hate’, forthcoming from Context /Westland in November 2018. She tweets at@RevatiLaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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