City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Physical and the Political

For someone who is not really an early morning person, occasional forays into the dawn and its immediate neighbourhood are always revealing. People of all ages, sizes and genders are running, walking, exercising, cycling and belly- laughing purposefully everywhere one looks. For a country that thought of physical exertion largely as a product of bad fate, this is a real transformation.

The need for some kind of physical activity is clearly linked to a growing consciousness about health and fitness. There is a new determination that lines our jaws, a new destination that our bodies strive to attain. Gyms across the country bear testimony to this need, as new parts of the body begin to acquire names. Abs, triceps, quads, hams and other abbreviations that bristle with concentrated purpose have begun to grow out of our bodies, intent on toning them and giving them shape.

At one level, as our bodies no longer need to work, in a world made soft by technology, they need to work out. We punish our bodies, because otherwise they would rot from disuse. Physical exercise serves many purposes, but a fundamental need that it satisfies is for us to experience our bodies in a state of stress. Additionally, the sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging that one derives from collective physical exertion is difficult to substitute by any other action.

This is an insight that plays a significant role in many arenas. Business certainly understands this- the sport and fitness industry has been growing worldwide as more people start taking up physical exercise more seriously. The other arena, which may not at first glance, seem to a candidate for exploiting this human need is politics.

A big difference between the right and the liberal-left in India is the extent to which the physical is part of the efforts to mobilise popular support. The left is high on language and ideas, but low on the physical, barring the occasional protest march and candlelight vigil. Leaders have down the years, embarked on padyatras, forays into the country on foot, but these are largely built around the individual and do not usually represent an attempt to mobilise people on a larger scale. Mainstream efforts of this kind are hard to come by.

The right on the other hand, has a much deeper understanding of the power of getting people to do something as a sign of their belief. There is a reason why the shakha is so central to the RSS way of life. Even a minimal form of physical activity carried out in a group binds one to the collective. Combined with a distinctive uniform and a specific set of rituals, the feeling of being part of a cadre wedded to a cause gets instilled. There is also a strong element of the martial, that aims to signify a more aggressive resolve on part of the majority community. Physical exertion serves as a concrete form of investment into a belief system.

For the young in particular, activities are instruments through which ideals get implanted. Religious practice is a good place to see this understanding at work. The organising of any festival in the neighbourhood, be it a Vishal Bhagwati Jagran or Ganesh Chaturthi, involves a whole set of actions that allow for the physical mobilisation of a group of people. One signals one’s belonging to a group not necessarily by buying into its beliefs, but by participating in its activities. The need for these occasions when one can submerge one’s individual identity into something larger can be seen in the frenzied masses of people that pour out of trucks and buses, drenched in sweat and swooning to the hypnotic beats of the music that blares out at each such event.

Be it a group of gau rakshaks, the Kawadias who set off on an arduous journey in large groups, or the self-appointed guardians who patrol the moral borders of society by identifying and challenging instances of love jihad, a lot of political mobilisation is in fact some form of physical activity wrapped up in a political or cultural cause. In some way, these are versions of picnics, however aggressive their intent might be, where a group of people get to exercise their surplus anger and energy in the name of a larger cause.

The link between the idleness that is on evidence as one travels across the country and the growth of these private forces that find something to do in a way that appears meaningful to them is difficult to miss. The gap that exists in the lives of the underemployed youth in the country needs to get filled. Physical activity that is laced with an undercurrent of anger is an ideal fit with the sense of marginalisation that significant sections of the country are experiencing today. There is a sense of doing something, of making a difference,whatever its nature might be, that animates the participation of the young in such collective actions.

The importance of harnessing the physical is not new. The politics of physical activity has a rich tradition in the country, particularly during India’s freedom struggle. The Gandhian practice of politics emphasised the importance of the physical, beginning with acts of sanitation and encompassing several modes of action including marches, the burning of imported clothes and the use of the charkha. The sense of belonging to a vibrant movement needs to be translated into physical experience, something demonstrated well during the Janlokpal movement.

Today, however, it is largely one side of the political fence that seems to grasp the power of physical mobilisation and the need to convert political leaning into physical participation. Politics has gone off the streets, into the bylanes of social media and the TV studio. Which is why many pressing issues most often do not translate into political movements on the ground. The politics of words perhaps needs to be accompanied by the politics of physical action.

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