As The Theatre Of Politics Plays Out, Will We, The People, Play The Role Brecht Had In Mind?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a sound and light show to remind Indians of this horrifying incident, which most do not want to relive.

In 2011, a friend and I took a road trip to Punjab. As we drove from Delhi, we saw breath-taking visuals of green farms, forests and developed cities. After visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar, we walked to the Jallianwala Bagh. Sombre feelings coursed through us, as we were at the site of a gruesome history episode we had been taught in school — the horrendous, brutal massacre that took place on April 13, 1919. People had been protesting the arrest of pro-Independence leaders Dr Saifuddin Kitchlu and Dr Satya Pal. British troops had opened fire on the protesters on the orders of Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. Few historians say it was Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, who ordered the Jallianwala massacre, though Dyer was on ground.

Walking down this memory lane of our history, one gets goosebumps imagining the terror unleashed by the British troops that forced many of the panicked, hapless protesters to jump into the well despite knowing they would be leaping to their deaths. As one peered through the metal net over this well of death, one could only imagine how their families would have received the news and then attempted to reconcile with the bitter truth — their beloved kith and kin had died for this country, casting aside their own dreams, families and loved ones.


Depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.


A day later, we headed to the Wagah border, waiting to see what lay before us on the Indian side. Prior to the exchange of flags and a few sombre moments, there was an ultra-high-decibel sound and drama show. Girls running up and down waving the Indian flag, which one felt, was absolutely over the top. The contrast couldn’t have been more glaring. There was complete silence on the other side. At one point, a man obviously connected to some saffron outfit commanded my friend’s old aunt and me to stand up and join them. But he had to be politely told off, as there is no law stating that all are required to participate.

History interpreted

I shudder to recall this incident because we all seem to have failed to realise it has actually been so thoroughly planned –groundwork was being done over all these years by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, pushing for a one-religion-one-nation conspiracy, which includes their interpretation of history. It is definitely a sad day that this narrow alley leading to the massacre site with bare walls now has images of people who were killed. On August 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a sound and light show to remind Indians of this horrifying incident, which most do not want to relive. For the second time last month, the stage was set for high-octane drama, yet again. These types of personalities are actually scary and we can see similarities with the psychological assessment of those desperately needing drama for everything in life.

Just a few days ago, the PM announced, his government had decided to observe August 14 as the Vibhajan Vibhishikha Smriti Divas or Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, to remember the pain and sufferings faced by the people of India back then. Yet again, the BJP government hijacked the historic personalities of Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh. Now, we are seeing forced commemorations of events in history, the rekindling of the horrors prior to our Independence under a government that selectively celebrates the majority religion and communities while it is basically asking Muslims to leave this country and thereby turning a blind eye to the violence being unleashed on them. A theatre of horrors is unfolding before a live audience, loudly tomtomming its message.


The passage of Jallianwala Bagh through which General Dyer entered on the day of massacre.

Theatrics in Politics

Clearly, our PM is a master in entire theatre – so far, he has ensured that every policy and announcement is made with due pomp and ceremony. Remember the taali-mar, thaali-banging, lamp-lighting? We were building up to a sound-and-light show, the likes of which have never been witnessed before. Every impending announcement creates anxiety and a feverish build-up of anticipation in one’s mind. We are actually glad if it all ends in an anti-climax, but the drama and countdown to the actual announcement becomes the topic of discussion for a while, serving as a weapon of mass distraction, thereby giving them time to plan their next move. In fact, former CM of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis, the blue-eyed boy of the PM, has admitted that politics is similar to theatre and politicians must perform many acts, some which are false. He however, leaves it to the public to determine for themselves what to accept as true and what to reject as false.

In fact, Richard A Leahy says in his paper, ‘The theatre an examination of power’ – combining political theory and theatre history. He says, “Theatre and politics are intrinsically connected. The art of politics is extremely theatrical and the art of theatre has always been infused with political relationships.” We see how in both theatre and politics, it is necessary to convince people to believe what one is saying. Here, the politician is making the public believe in him and the new world he is creating. This is exactly what we are seeing in India today — the ideology that the RSS has been perpetuating through the BJP government, and their leader Modi is making us believe in that ideology. The core narrative being: India is a Hindu nation that is not secular but has one religion.

Narendra Modi inaugurating the renovated complex of Jallianwala Bagh.

Then there are those erudite politicians who have written literary works and have been able to highlight the need of drama and theatre in politics. One such is Vaclav Havel, who elaborates that theatrical sensibility is played in two-edged ways in politics in his essay, ‘Why politics needs the theatre’. Havel will seem more convincing to people, as he was the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989-1993 and President of Czech Republic, 1993-2003. He has also written 21 plays. He wrote that there are people who have the ability to arouse society to do great deeds and nurture among emotions, a sense of responsibility. “Such people can also mobilize the worst instincts and passions, make masses fanatical and lead societies into hell.” The events we are witnessing today are literally what Havel has described. It also makes one wonder if what the renowned playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his essay, ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting’ can come true. Brecht said that once the audience has consciously rejected what it sees rather than identifying with the characters and the plot subconsciously, then people can change the world for the better. But of course, for this change to occur there needs to be realisation among those citizens whose vote seems to count right now and the ones who believe in the main character of our country, the PM and the narrative being put out. Sadly, the mainstream media too is not informing the people of the truth, but instead, giving information from government handouts. This is also a part of the movement towards the totalitarian dispensation that we are witnessing today, with the mainstream media being denied the freedom that is rightfully its due. With the steady disintegration of our democratic institutions, it is no surprise the public believes in the fake videos and information and forwards put out by the BJP IT cell on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Only an informed public can perform the role that Brecht envisaged for them – changers of the course of their history. This seems rather tough in the current political scenario, as those who speak up are either put in jail or are being chased by investigative agencies. Those who do speak up are not heard or have no hold over the public.

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