Of Martyrs and Patriots

When Delhi University student Gurmeher Kaur’s April 2016 campaign advocating peace between India and Pakistan was noticed by the Twitterati after she posted a photo with her holding a placard denouncing ABVP’s violence, it kind of turned the “pro-soldier right and anti-soldier left” debate on its head. The debate, in which apparently the Left has no argument patriotic enough for the Right, has for some gobsmacking reason continued to dominate Twitter for as long as I’ve been active on the site, or at least my own timeline. And like most arguments on Twitter, it barely makes sense.

The right-wingers, lovingly (just kidding!) called Bhakts, cry hoarse all the time about how you should not curse your life as whatever you’re going through, “the soldiers are dying at the border”. This expression, used in different phraseologies, is used to stifle even minor dissent against the government, government actions, politicians and ‘patriots’.

The expression gained traction after demonetisation was announced. The long queues and daily torments suffered by common people was coolly justified by saying “soldiers die for our country, can’t you even stand in queues for our country for a few hours/days/months?’ No matter how ridiculous it sounded, everybody, from fake (and I supposed paid) trolls to well-known government-friendly news anchors, all used the same argument, if it can be said that, and with a seemingly straight face.

When 20-year old Gurmeher’s last year’s campaign video became known a couple of days ago, the text on the placards she was holding was quoted, selectively quoted, misquoted, interpreted, and misinterpreted by sundry people like it always happens on Twitter. ‘Patriots’ had readied their keyboards to attack Gurmeher after her anti-ABVP stand, only to stop and think again, for she had turned out to be a martyr’s daughter. Damn it.

When the Leftists realised that the martyr thing could work in their favour, they began to play up the fact that she was the daughter of a solider who had died in action and was also supporting them against ABVP goons. That is after they had all along ridiculed the Bhakts ‘liberally’ for playing the soldier card all the time. The Right-wingers on the other hand, still anxious to retain their patriotic and pro-army credentials, were for a while at a loss as to what to do. But when they saw the last year’s video, all hell broke loose.

Bhakts were particularly bothered by one placard among several Gurmeher had been showing the camera one after another. It read, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him.” Completely missing the context and not fathoming that she was making a larger point about war and violence, the message escaped their thick heads, and they went utterly berserk. There were some glorious responses which sum up not just Twitter but also current political discourse. “Your [Gurmeher’s] father would have shot you in the head”, “fucking commie”, “Bitch!”, “Randi” to mention a glittering  few. Trolling and flinging obscenities at a martyr’s daughter became the new definition of patriotism.

At the time of writing this, that definition is the current one.

The Art of Disagreement

I’m trying to be more active on Twitter these days as, first, the place is just so entertaining, and second, it is helpful with my profession. Although I’ve had an account for years, I got around to use it seriously only since last February, when JNU fracas bubbled up and spilled over primetime news. It was in those days I joined the almost daily ‘debates’ and saw for myself how intense and contentious Twitter could be. Before joining, I had loved to call  Twitter’Facebook for those who cannot write more than 140 characters’. In a way, I loved and hated Twitter in equal measure for what it was.

While it is often fun to interact with people on Twitter, especially those with more intellect and experience than me, there is barely any constructive discussion, and as often as not the people who are engaged in a conversation come with their own pre-concieved notions which they are reluctant to compromise with. Even worse, they think disagreeing with somebody is a bad thing, something which has no place in the society.

I am not committed to any ideology. I do not think any ideology is perfect or anywhere near it for that matter. I neither support the Left nor the Right. Political Centre does not suit me either. The only time I have participated in that mainstay of democracy, elections, I gave my vote to NOTA, for the simple reason that I did not find a suitable choice in the motley list of candidates. But that does not mean I despise politics. On the contrary, I take a lot of interest in it, and that’s one of the prime reason I use Twitter even after so hateful and rancorous it has become.

What I notice on Twitter is there is almost no appreciation of dissent. Here, I don’t mean just dissent against the state. I mean dissent in its literal form. It’s considered a big thing if people disagree. The argument between two dissenters usually ends in abuse and insult. Even the best of us are susceptible to this degeneration. Hardly anybody understands the art of disagreement. Everybody peddles their own narrative, other’s opinion be damned.

What we (and that includes me) need to understand is that disagreement is okay. It’s not an issue. If your worldview doesn’t match your adversary’s, you don’t have to go to great lengths in convincing them how you’re on the right side. You do not have to fling cusswords at them –  it won’t bolster your argument. They may be right in their place, you may be right in yours. Present your arguments with facts in a calm manner, let them present theirs. If they don’t, ask them so that they can support their argument. But if you don’t reach at an agreement, let it go.  As they say, let’s agree to disagree.

In this manner, I think we can make Twitter a much better place to have conversation than the cesspit it currently is.