«The silence on the streets should never be mistaken for a quiet submission in politics» – An interview with Shaj Mohan

Text: Krithika Varagur

Krithika Varagur: You had been writing and publishing intensely against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) brought into a law by Modi’s government, which discriminates against Muslims. You said that politics today was not local, but it has global dimensions everywhere. What are you learning about the changes in the organization of direct political action and protest movements in the midst of this unprecedented crisis? Is anything new, or are all the familiar dynamics and power structures at play—on the ground and in the discourse? 

Shaj Mohan: I have been saying that resistance and protests are no longer very helpful. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of systemic transformation, more precisely revolution. Philosopher Divya Dwivedi recently wrote that it would require a re-articulation of Kantian imagination as the collective faculty which can create freedoms in politics. I do see certain resonance in some of the discourses today.

Now, we can never create fantasy fictions of politics and then implement them. So when I wrote about the anti-CAA protests in India it was with the knowledge that a revolutionary transformation was already taking place in politics because the lower caste people (Bahujan, which means the real majority who are 90% of the population) have been organizing outside the electoral forms of politics, which anyway systematically excludes them, across party lines. The Bahujan are inventing a new faculty in politics, and for that reason the people associated with these movements are being arrested even in the middle of the lockdown. The silence on the streets should never be mistaken for a quiet submission in politics. From what I can see of the world, from out of the room (but not quite like the Chinese sage), the world is stretching like a bow during this lockdown—let’s say there is Kairos (καιρός), or an opportunity, in the world.


Krithika Varagur: In Delhi there were intense communal riots in February right before the coronavirus made its presence known. Has that ground to a halt? Have people migrated their activism to online spaces? In America protests have begun due to the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by the police, which is the most recent incident in a series of racial profiling. Are there parallels between India and America in all this? 

Shaj Mohan: There is a great difference between India and America. In America the African American people are a minority and in India the lower caste people are the 90% of the population. When the lower caste people are lynched and murdered on a regular basis we see no protests, neither in India nor across the world. India went into lockdown following a pogrom against Muslims and in America the people came out on the streets following a lynching.

Yet there are similarities between the two situations. What we perceive as extreme events, such as pogroms and lynching, are prepared by everyday discriminations which we failed to tackle in India and elsewhere. This has been known ever since genocides were studied. A group of people do not appear as dangerous or less than human so easily without a lot of preparation. This can be seen today in the parallels between the arrests of those who demand justice–and sometimes just the right to live–in these protests being arrested on extraordinary charges in both countries. Afterall Modi and Trump have a friendship of vile power and obscene rhetoric. Therefore we should not see the pandemic as having very suddenly instituted something special in the world. The pandemic and the lockdown have a mechano-lensing effect which shows us things which are about to seize us. As you know, gravitational lensing, the bending of light by gravity, allows us to see astronomical objects behind the object which bends the light. Often these lensed objects, such as galaxies, appear stretched, enlarged, multiplied and so on. The pandemic has not really invented anything yet, but it is revealing and distorting the hidden evils of our world. It is showing us the discriminations, poverties of various kinds, the suffering of temporary teachers, the extreme vulnerability of sexual politics and trans-activism, and the undemocratic form in which the world is being held together by techno-economic-corporate order. If we see parallels it is because all the problems of the world are determined by the same order.

Krithika Varagur: There has been news about people stealing food and other methods of popular “protest” amongst India’s poor and working classes, can you go into a little more detail on what is happening on the ground, other modes of resistance and protest? Theft and destruction of shops have been seen in protests in other parts of the world too, including France and America in recent months. Is there something like a general principle that connects them? 

Shaj Mohan: People stealing food in the middle of a pandemic in an extremely poor country like India cannot be seen as protest. When the Lorries carrying flour were looted their owner said that it was justified, it was the right of the people to eat. It is market morality which tells us that you must not steal, you must not be a pirate, but pay for everything with your exhaustion; rather, you must not aspire to the things which the super-rich have. The market morality is the worst in the academies, as Aaron Swartz found tragically.

But, your question points to something interesting, the beginning of the proliferation of theft and piracy in the middle of political actions. We should remember that one of the icons of our entry to a post-war world was the film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which was about the morality of theft. A moral order works in a particular social system because it has found that certain restrictions are necessary to derive parameters and constants which can give the system regularities. For example, in Althusser’s idiom the morality of a worker being on time in a factory, her obligations to her children, and the children’s training in these moral codes in school are interconnected; that is, the moral obligation to the family is what ensures the worker’s appearance in the factory on time, which makes the factory sync with the family. This “sync” has already been lost in our societies and therefore we have moral codes which do not have parametric effects on the working of the world. When people don’t have work and the conditions to raise children, it follows that they cannot entertain the moral obligations from another epoch. So, let me say this: It is hunger and starvation that is evil, and not theft. As the American poet said “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence”.

Krithika Varagur: How do you see politics and protests changing across the world due to the coronavirus? How do you think COVID-19 and Modi’s lockdown will change India’s longstanding and unusually strong traditions of mass protest, from farmers’ marches to civic rallies? 

Shaj Mohan: I am neither “Sophos”, the wise man, nor a prophet, the one who sees ahead. I am only the philosopher. I think the protests in the name of resistance will continue precisely because protests do not achieve anything. Resistance implies that you defend something you hold as valuable against the advancement of something you perceive as harmful. We have no idea what it is that we are defending anymore. If it is an egalitarian society that we wish to defend then we have to start constructing it ourselves, with precision, and only then resistance might mean something. Otherwise, protest is the same as prayer, or sometimes partying on the streets; a few hours of distraction, if you are lucky, which makes it easy to accept that it will be worse tomorrow. But I do see currents of precise imagination, at least on the internet today.

Krithika Varagur: Have people been able to protest the (by any measure, quite extreme) lockdown at all? In America the protests against the lockdown came mainly from the far right. Now, it seems that the lockdown is not sustainable anywhere and yet there is no cure in sight. What is driving the decisions of the state everywhere?

Shaj Mohan: This is what I call a “vortex of evil”. States are forced to adopt lockdown as a temporary measure, to prevent large numbers of deaths and to prepare the healthcare systems which were never conceived for dealing with pandemics. But if the lockdown is extended indefinitely there will be starvation, more diseases to deal with, and certain economic catastrophe which the corporations would not want. Therefore, as opposed to the doomsday enthusiasts who see this as the final enclosure of man, most governments, especially in Europe, are holding at bay a “vortex of evil.”

In India, perhaps in America too, we have something else. Fascist organizations thrive on crises of low intensity which they then accelerate to increase their control over society. They are elected by their supporters to cause destruction to some or the other enemies (which is the case with Trump as well). Modi’s supporters know that he is an illiterate man good at pogroms, for the same reason his supporters trust that he is going to be terrible at dealing with crisis of this magnitude. Fascism today is elected ineptitude, whether in India or America, and it is our misfortune that in this dark hour we cannot exchange it for something better. But, if people are willing to forget the party form of politics we can find our way out of this lockdown with reason, and reason alone.


Krithika Varagur is an American journalist. She interviewed Delhi-based philosopher Shaj Mohan on 2 June 2020 for the inaugural issue of the new literary magazine The Drift, as part of a series of protest dispatches from around the world.