For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.
You are reading an older article which was published on
Aug 22, 2022

'Garm Hava' and the Politics of Protest

Demonstrators observe silence together, they sing in tandem, give and listen to speeches and clarify what impelled them to come out of their homes and occupy public land. In the process, they tell us what they stand for and from where they speak.
A still from M.S. Sathyu's 'Garm Hava'.

Rachel Dwyer, in an interesting contribution to The Wire on August 17, captured the ethos of the film Garm Hava well. This piece carries on the conversation by focusing on the political message of the film.

In the poignant 1974 film by M.S. Sathyu, Salim Mirza, played brilliantly by Balraj Sahni, is forced to migrate to Pakistan after 1947. He does not want to go to a country that had been founded on the basis of religion, but living in India in the aftermath of Partition had become impossible. He had been left alone because his family had migrated to Pakistan.

He locked the doors of his haveli and reluctantly climbed onto a tonga bound for the railway station – that’s when the political miracle happened. A procession carrying a red flag adorned with the hammer and sickle – the distinctive symbol of communist solidarity with the oppressed – passed the tonga.

A poster for ‘Garm Hava’.

Mirza climbed down, straightened his cap, and joined the procession, in which his son was already taking part. He had discovered an alternative to the blood-soaked politics of religious violence. The alternative was solidarity with oppressed people; it was commitment to a grand imagination of equality; and was inspired by the politics of protest.

Mirza made a great choice. There cannot be a more spectacular dream of human emancipation than the one Marx gave us: that politics is not only about power, it is about solidarity with the oppressed; about power as social transformation. This was Mirza’s answer to the politics of hate relentlessly propelled onto the political stage by the politicisation of religion. 

Members of the Constituent Assembly were more than conscious of the troubled context in which a democratic constitution was being drafted, and of the need to provide an alternative to politicised religion. Rajendra Prasad, presiding over the deliberations of the assembly, put the matter in a nutshell. On December 11, 1946, he stated:

“The Constituent Assembly is meeting at a most critical time. We all know that other constituent assemblies, whenever and wherever they met, were confronted with similar difficulties. They had also to contend with internal differences which were placed before them with great vehemence… Many of these constituent assemblies were held amidst strife and bloodshed; even their proceedings were conducted amidst quarrels and fights. Their members joined together and with courage, kindness, generosity, tolerance and regard for one another’s feelings framed constitutions which were then readily accepted by the people of the countries for which they were framed.”

This was the specific mandate of the Constituent Assembly; to create a constitution in a spirit of courage, kindness, generosity, tolerance, and regard for each one other’s feelings. 

An alternative form of politics was ready for Indians who would, in 1950, become citizens of a democratic community. Right-thinking Indians who had disdained the reduction of religion to the pursuit of rank power were equally ready for this alternative.

Watch: M.S. Sathyu: ‘Garm Hava’ Was Stuck With the Censors for 11 Months

The freedom struggle had taught them that there is nothing a people cannot do when they come together in a political movement that transcends caste, regional and religious affiliations. They can move the proverbial mountain; they can dismiss governments and elect new ones; they can mobilise for the well-being of their fellow citizens in the deliberative space of the political community – i.e., civil society – and above all, they can hold governments responsible for acts of omission and commission.

The vision might be a milder avatar of the perfect communist society, but perfection in political life, we have learnt, is utopian. Dreams, history has told us, can turn into nightmares. This is what the inhabitants of actually existing socialist societies discovered in 1989 and 1991.

Also read: Is The Global Left’s Fantasy World One Worth Fighting For?

Yet Marxism has taught us one valuable lesson – where there is power, there must need be resistance. People who unite in the associational space of civil society might be far poorer than the privileged holders of economic and political power; they may be far more disadvantaged. But by coming together, they create their own power; the power of solidarity, of struggle; the capacity to dream dreams of a society in which they will be respected; and the power of remaking society.

That is why so-called leaders and political parties aspiring to vulgar power try to destroy solidarity and divide people along the lines of ethnic affiliation and into religious majorities and minorities. Sadly, they have succeeded.

And while they might have succeeded, it is only for the moment. Human emotions of solidarity have proved too strong in history to be wiped out completely. Marx’s human being might be oppressed, exploited and beaten, but s/he can stand up and speak back to a history of greed and of inhumanity along with others. Solidarity allows us to conceive of an egalitarian society; of a perfectly just society; of a society where individuals do not encounter each other as bearers of commodities but as human beings who relate to each other on grounds of solidarity and determination to resist the tyrannies people in power heap upon the lesser advantaged. 

Mirza’s confidence in the politics of protest was not misplaced. B.R. Ambedkar had said in his final address on the Draft Constitution on November 25, 1949 that howsoever good a constitution might be, it is sure to turn bad if those who are called upon to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it might turn out to be good if those who work it are good.

“The working of a constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the constitution,” he had said. It depends also on the people and on the political parties they elect. “It is, therefore, futile to pass any judgement upon the constitution without reference to the part which the people and their parties are likely to play.” Our constitution has been violated and disrespected by the very people who swear to uphold it. 

Also read: As Narendra Modi Extends His Dominance, Beware the Bulldozer’s Effect on the Constitution

History tells us that no story of power can be abstracted from resistance. Governments should be wary of what Greek mythology calls hubris: the overweening pride and arrogance of people in power.

It is precisely hubris that is overturned by the avenging goddess Nemesis, sister of Justitia, the Goddess of Justice. Someone, somewhere will stand up and create or join a protest against laws that threaten livelihoods and lives like Mirza did. Somebody will read the words of the Preamble of the Indian constitution in public and spark off a major social movement that re-appropriates notions of popular sovereignty, as our young people did during the anti-CAA agitation

Protestors hold up posters and chant slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Photo: Reuters

It is possible to re-appropriate democratic vocabularies and to wrest them out of the closed fists of politicians because politics is always contested. What is not contested cannot be political; it is mere administration or governance.

Sometimes, contestation over political meanings can take the form of everyday resistance. On occasion, contestation is expressed through social movements that bring people together to protest and author an alternative form of politics. Embodied within the imaginaries and the languages of the movement is a more democratic and more humane notion of politics and of lives worth living. 

Social movements might lose out against the power of the almighty state, or they might win. In any case, they leave powerful imprints on the political consciousness of society. Every social movement inspires and instructs. And each movement throws up a number of questions that attract the attention of scholars and social activists.

What inspires women and men to leave their homes and their workplaces and occupy public spaces for months on end? Perhaps protestors understand that the politics of assembling in public spaces carry a more powerful message than occasional soap-box activity or online petitions. Demonstrators observe silence together, they sing in tandem, they give and listen to speeches, they clarify issues that have impelled them to come out of their homes and occupy public land. In the process, they tell us what they stand for, and from where they speak.

And this is precisely what Mirza did when he rejected the banal politics of religion and when he became part of a transformative politics of protest. By making the choice to join the movement, he demonstrated what Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem ‘Requiem Without a Hero’ had suggested.

In the 1930s, thousands of Russians were rounded up and sent to the Gulag. Akhmatova spent 17 months waiting in long queues outside a jail in Leningrad to find out what had happened to her son. She began the ‘Requiem’ with these heart-rending lines:

No, not under a foreign sky
Nor in the shelter of a foreign wing
With my people there stood I
With them in their suffering

Suffering with my people is what solidarity is about. This was Mirza’s preferred alternative to the politics of religious mobilisation; mobilisation had wrecked a country in which people had learned to live together for centuries. It still continues to wreck our society. We have forgotten how to live together. We need another Salim Mirza.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter