ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Movements and Mediators

No struggle or social movement in these days of interconnectivity and brand imaging can hope to operate in isolation. They both attract and seek to involve specialist interlocutors. That is possibly the only, at least a prime, way by which movements seek to expand their domain of influence, carve out hearing space in a world otherwise unconcerned about or insensitive to their specific set of concerns, alter the terms of discourse, and thereby advance their cause. These relationships/engagements, at the same time, can both enlarge or constrain social spaces and have significant implications for the trajectory of the movement, if not its very nature.

Few exchanges have in recent times caused as much dismay in the shrinking world of the politically correct as the one between ecological historian Ramachandra Guha (The Hindu Magazine, November 26, 2000) and novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy (Frontline, January 19, 2001). Even more, the selection of letters pro and against Guha’s original salvo (The Hindu Magazine, December 18, 2000). What is however surprising, or not so, is that the 30-odd letter writers (many of whom complained that truncated versions of their letters to Guha, not the newspaper, were placed in the public domain without seeking their permission) have focused more on the tonality of Guha’s writing, the intemperateness of his speech, the timing (coming as it did in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment lifting the stay on further construction of the controversial Sardar Sarovar project), as also the ostensible effort on Guha’s part to play gatekeeper and decide on who is entitled to write on what rather than the substantive issues raised.

Well, Arundhati Roy is more than capable of holding her own, as was amply proved in her freewheeling but carefully orchestrated interview to the editor of Frontline. If anything, as per popular opinion, Guha has been clearly bested in the bout, and well may be ruing his decision to open up the ‘war of words’. Nevertheless, his more serious point about causes and movements and their vexed relationship with ‘personalities’ not directly involved with sharing the travails of the struggle, remains. “Celebrity endorsement of social movements is always fraught with hazard. In the beginning it may attract media attention, and draw to the cause previous, silent bystanders. However, the media will soon abandon the cause for the star, and the converts will soon return to their humdrum lives.”

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