A scene from 'Greatest Events of WWII in Colour' showing the Allied armada crossing the English Channel on June 6, 1944.

The sea of metal

Two of the most decisive moments of the Second World War that I can’t get enough of are the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day landings. In the Battle of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler’s army suffered its first major defeat, signalling to Nazi Germany that it was just as capable of bleeding as any other regime, that its forces – despite the individual formidability of each German soldier – were capable of defeat. The D-Day landings were the proximate beginning of the end, allowing Allied forces to penetrate Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and, in due course, bring the fight to Germany.

These two battles played out differently in one way (among others, of course). The Battle of Stalingrad began on German initiative but turned into a Soviet siege that slowly but continuously drove home the point to German soldiers trapped in the Soviet city that they couldn’t possibly win. Eventually, on January 31, 1943, the Germans surrendered together with their leader, Friedrich Paulus, who also became the first Field Marshal of the Nazi armed forces to be captured by the enemy during the war. Operation Overlord – of which the D-Day landings were part – on the other hand hinged on a single, potentially decisive event: of blowing a hole in the Atlantic Wall at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and securing it for long enough for more Allied troops to land ashore as well as for those already inside France to assemble and establish communications.

The Allies succeeded of course, although slower than planned at first, but in all successfully marching from there to liberate France and then take Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler would commit suicide on April 30 to avoid capture), effectively ending the war.

Operation Overlord is well-documented, particularly so from the Allied point of view, with records as well as video footage describing the great lengths to which American, Australian, Belgian, British, Canadian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Luxembourger, New Zealander, Norwegian and Polish forces went to ensure it was a success. The Allies had to do five things: keep Hitler in the dark, or at least confused, about where the Allies were going to attack the Atlantic Wall; sabotage the Germans’ ability to respond quickly to wherever the Allies attacked; transport an army across the English Channel and land it ashore on a heavily fortified beach; establish and then link five beachheads; and capture the city of Caen. The documentary Greatest Events of WWII in Colour narrates these events to the accompaniment of riveting visual detail – a must-watch for anyone interested in military history, especially the Second World War.

I enjoyed some bits of it more than others, one of them about Operation Overlord itself. The Allied beach-landing at Normandy is perhaps the most important event of the Second World War, and it’s quite easy to find popular historical material about it; the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) come to mind. However, I’ve always wondered how the German soldiers sitting in their bunkers and pill-boxes on the shores of Normandy might have felt. To behold one of the largest armies in modern history rise unexpectedly out of the horizon is no trivial thing. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour documents this.

Narrator: As the dawn breaks, it’s the German soldiers in Normandy, not Calais [where Hitler et al were made to believe the Allies would attack], who witness the enormity of the Allied invasion fleet for the first time.

Peter Lieb, historian: For the Germans sitting in their bunkers in Normandy, the sight of the Allied armada must have been terrifying. A sea full of metal.

Geoffrey Wawro, professor of military history: Witnesses recall just absolute stunned disbelief. This was the greatest armada assembled in world history, and this thing suddenly appears out of the darkness off the coast of Normandy.

A sea of metal!

There’s a certain masculinity imbibed in the picture, a grand combination of brawn, self-righteousness and exhibition that wartime rhetoric prizes because its adrenaline elides the tragedy of war itself. The Second World War was a particularly brutal affair with crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Allied and Axis powers both, and continuing even after 1945 across multiple continents. However, it is also tempting to believe that the start of Operation Overlord, by striking fear in the Germans and bearing down upon a fascist government that had to be destroyed, is one of those rare acts of war that deserves to be recounted with this rousing rhetoric. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour is only shrewd enough to play along.

The fascist’s trap

The following lines appear in the opening portion of G.S. Mudur’s report in The Telegraph about government opposition to student protests:

“The people protecting our democracy are the people in JNU. They’re taking beatings on our behalf,” K.S. Venkatesh [a professor of electrical engineering at IIT Kanpur] told the assembled group [of students and faculty members]. “We’re sitting here comfortably. Look what the people in JNU are taking — and (at) some other places too.”

Don’t these lines sound familiar?

A popular right-wing narrative in the media these days has evoked images of the precarious conditions in which India’s soldiers apparently protect the country’s borders from the Islamic hordes that would overrun us while armchair activists and journalists squander their hard-won peace with protests against their own government, thus disrespecting the soldiers themselves. This way, the fascist inverts the relationship between a country and its army: instead of soldiers existing because there is a people worth protecting, the people exist because there is a solider worth protecting.

Ultimately, the soldier’s body and the body’s war become the cause itself – the ultimate excuse to deploy whatever means necessary to maintain internal order and homogeneity. And the citizen who deviates from this is condemned and punished with social sanctions that are not privy to judicial scrutiny. The heterodox agent becomes the perfect anti-national because she has not conducted herself ‘worthy’ of the soldiers’ ‘sacrifice’. Indeed the BJP has tied such misconduct with the actions of India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan and China, and increasingly Bangladesh, to create a self-fulfilling, self-justifying prophecy.

This is why Venkatesh’s words, that “we’re sitting comfortably”, are unsettling. It’s perfectly okay to sit comfortably – at least, it should be. Yes, JNU, and Jamia and Aligarh and so many other universities and their students, are fighting and we are in solidarity with them. We will also take to the streets (and other fora), express our support as well as objection loud and clear. But we will also not do this because our compatriots and comrades in JNU are being thrashed by the police. We will do this because we want to.

Second, we will not be guilty to sit comfortably either – which, in Venkatesh’s speech, likely means students and teachers discussing in classrooms, students and teachers conducting tests in labs, students and teachers engaging in conversation and debate. It is for the right to do all of these things that we also protest, as well as the right to think peacefully, to engage in civil conversation and to enjoy the commons. If we forget this, and erect the bruised body as the motivation for individual political action, we fall into the fascist’s trap: that we must not sit comfortably because we offend our protectors (the students of JNU or whoever).

The Resistance of the Time

Let us visit the future – a suitable point of time located in one of the many tomorrows ahead of us, a tomorrow far enough to have left The Time behind. What do we see? We see, among other things, that many people spoke up. Many people did not. Many people who spoke up did not say what we wanted them to say. They said what others wanted them to say. A few even spoke words of their own.

What happens after a fascist regime ends? Will we want to remember who spoke up and who did not? Will we want to remember and punish those who did not say what we wanted them to say? Some of those who spoke up said all the wrong things, we say, and that was wrong because they were in power. They could have done something by doing the right thing.


One man comes to mind. K was a member of the government. He was a reasonable man and a smart man. He did not speak up at The Time. I imagine he did not want to upset his vengeful masters. I remember K as a good man because even though he did not speak up, he did a lot of good work when he was in the government. He advanced a variety of causes that people of my political persuasion would have appreciated if it weren’t for The Time being what it was.

Looking back from now, his name clearly belongs on the list of people who did not speak up.

But I know that if he had spoken up, he would have been removed from office and wouldn’t have been able to do all the other things that he did – things that continue to reap rewards to this day. These things probably did not make The Time end but then should they be discarded for this reason? To play the devil’s advocate: if K had spoken up against the government (assuming those were his views), the anti-fascist movement – such as it is – would have gained a prominent supporter, but his absence within government would have affected the prospects of those his department laboured for.

In fact, consider whether the policies he and his colleagues drew out to help whom they were paid to help in turn empowered those people to speak out with less risk to their jobs and lives.

We presume to know what caused The Time to end. There is no question that the widespread protests made up the bulk of the reason. It was a necessary condition – but was it sufficient also?

Would it be unreasonable to expect resistance to work like we expect fundamental science to work: like trees, like the movement of continents, slowly but surely leading up to something great, which does not signal its value in flashing green lights as much as invites us take as much as we possibly can from it, in as many forms as we can imagine, in as much time as we need?

Another man comes to mind. H was not a politician but he did have a seat at one of the highest tables in the land. He was not a very outspoken person at all; when he did speak, especially to the press, he stuck to the sport he had always been associated with. One day, as protests raged around the country against the CAA, H tweeted a banal comment about the way he liked to eat a snack, almost as if he was utterly oblivious of the fires burning elsewhere.

To the people caught in those blazes, H‘s tweet – fuelled by his privileged indifference, they said, when in fact he appeared to be responding to a friend’s comment – might have hurt just as much. No one knew what he was doing by way of resistance, if he was resisting at all, but the moment he published his words, the enemies of The Time tossed him in the figurative trash. The wavefunction had been forced to collapse irrespective of its own secret plans.


In Hannah Arendt’s telling, Adolf Eichmann personified the banality of evil – a label that in one moment captured the microscopic structure of human cruelty, and in the next, launched itself into the public imagination through the pokerfaced visage of Eichmann at the Jerusalem trial, as portrayed in countless films and documentaries. Her words were both accurate and sensational, so much so that uttering them as if they were one’s own was to plagiarise Arendt as much as to acknowledge her observation anew. There was no other way to put it.

But where the smallest pieces of evil are banal, the smallest bits of good are presumptuous. Goodness is often a self-contained and narcissistic moral force that refuses to make sense of anything but itself, and even itself it does not make sense of very well.

For example, we think we knew the ways in which people were and were not protesting. Of course, fascism was a hydra-like threat and dropping whatever you were doing to shout against the CAA on the street would not have been excessive. But what if you were not? What if, instead of expressing solidarity with my compatriots – whether they supported the CAA or opposed it – I had chosen to direct my vector of defiance against other foes?

Say, instead of marching from Valluvar Kottam or Jantar Mantar or August Kranti Maidan, that I had spent my time admonishing people for feeding stray dogs outside my house, soliloquising on my blog against the notion that science communicators are experts at nothing, and leaving the waiter a large tip when my father isn’t looking. What would you have said to me, or of me?

What is protest? What does it mean to resist? If in the post-fascist society we expect to rediscover the roots of a functional democracy, we must also expect to find here peaceable people – people able to trust one-another, who aren’t just keen to rationalise how X or Y resisted without joining a protest – arguably a basal instinct – but who can recognise demons they themselves may not have faced, and tip their hats to the silent fight to resist their temptations. If fascism is such a chimerical threat, would it not incubate more than one kind of monster as well?

Here, a third man comes to mind. L was a journalist with an organisation that was uninhibitedly angered by The Time and its attendant perversions. For this reason, L was automatically accorded a measure of respect and admiration in certain circles, especially those populated by people equally angered by The Time. L had heard some even say they would have liked to work with him in his organisation. Very flattering.

However, such flattery only complicated matters for L because he was almost constantly depressed. Where one might have taken a break from the news by diving into their work, L paid his bills by keeping his faced pressed tightly against the grindstone. He found it nearly impossible to disengage even as the sparks of cynicism and pessimism flying forth singed his psyche.

But he resisted. Every morning, he woke up, walked to the mirror and spent ten minutes muttering words of encouragement. Every time the Delhi police thrashed university students without provocation, he fought back tears and found ways to help his colleagues with their reports. Every time the voice in his head screamed at him for being so utterly incapable of moving the needle, L willed himself to step away from the darkness and go for a walk. Every time he wanted to leave, he found ways to stay.

The impetus for the resistance of L was to remain a productive and thinking citizen, to do what one could (the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘little’ rendered completely meaningless), to push the paddle against the current and journey upstream at whatever pace one could muster, until one day, he reached the shore to walk among his compatriots, to join them in pleasant conversation.


This does mean giving someone the benefit of your doubts, and yes, doing so is a precarious thing in a fascist regime, when even the slightest inclination towards granting an offender a second chance could spell doom. But fascism is a great corrupter as well, rivalling Morgoth Bauglir himself, and if the simple tokens and rituals with which we once forged trustful relationships between ourselves no longer work, whose fault is it: those about whom we know little or those whom we know for sure to be fascists, their faces the faces of The Time itself?

In the words of Joseph Brodsky, 1984 (source):

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

A prudent thing to do, therefore, would be to subject your notions of good to the closest possible scrutiny, to go, so to speak, through your entire wardrobe checking which of your clothes may fit a stranger. That, of course, may turn into a full-time occupation, and well it should. You’ll be surprised how many things you considered your own and good can easily fit, without much adjustment, your enemy. You may even start to wonder whether he is not your mirror image, for the most interesting thing about Evil is that it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’s notion of social justice, public conscience, a better future, etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number of those who share your views, not so much because unanimity has a knack of degenerating into uniformity as because of the probability—implicit in great numbers—that noble sentiment is being faked.

By the same token, the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin—not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do presumably with its innate insecurity, but this realization, again, is of small comfort when Evil triumphs.

A personal manifesto

Many people who are unsure of how their work can help put out the various (figurative) fires ravaging the country at the moment often quickly conclude that purpose is best found at the frontlines of this battle.

The common trap here is to conflate the most obvious path with the most right path, or either of them with the only path. It’s easier to protest, violently or non-violently, than to confront the apparent uselessness of whatever it is we had been doing until that moment. We passively discourage ourselves from doing something just because we liked doing it and aspire to doing something else because it accords a stronger sense of purpose, of being useful, in this moment. Putting the fires out becomes more important than everything else.

But the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless.

What we do is worth protecting. How we enjoy the peace is what makes a people, society and culture worth protecting – not the other way around. The nationalist machine has slowly but surely turned this truism on its head, positing the protection itself, and the ethnically and religiously rooted cause legitimising it, as the end-all of our existence, and rendering the freedom of choice as constructed by various articles of the Constitution an indulgence of the selfish elite.

The fascists isolate us and make us think we’re alone. This loneliness stems from the sense either that we’re not one with the nationalists’ cause or that we’re not part of the resistance actively opposing the fascists. Resistance is necessary but the fascists score a point the moment you believe physical resistance is the sole form of valid resistance, and that the endgame is the only moment that matters. Resistive action in moments of crisis is by itself a necessary but insufficient condition that must be fulfilled to thwart our enemies.

If only we remember, for example, that we as a people are worth protecting for choosing to exercise our freedoms when the going gets tough and – to borrow Neil Gaiman’s suggestion – make good art, we are easily salvaged. We are salvaged if we have a fun evening with friends, go for an eclipse-watching picnic with the family, learn to sing or teach to dance, tip generously, water the fields, figure out a problem, walk the dog, go to school, make a good cup of tea, even watch the Sun rise.

There is a simple but persistent purpose in all of these things, little springboards from which to make giant leaps, and the politics of Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would destroy just this foundation. Their politics represents the extremum of JFK’s exhortation to ‘ask what you can do for your country’, so it’s only natural to feel conflicted when one is seemingly forced to oppose it. But oppose it we must because the nation-state cannot make unlimited demands of the individual either.

The nationalists have further isolated us by carving science and society into distinct parts, robbing science of the moderating lessons of history and by robbing the transient present of the reassuring light of reason. They prize expertise to the point that it renders common sense dangerous, and they declare war on universities to ensure expertise is rare. They value data and facts above all else, empowering themselves to claim the virtuous pedestals of rationality and objectivity, when in fact they have weaponised the context and twisted definitions beyond recognition.

They isolate us by delegitimising our fictions, and the people and labour that produce them, substituting them in the public imagination with made-up histories that have none of fiction’s potential to enlighten and empower and all of scripture’s aspiration to subdue and stifle. In this moment, there is a valuable victory to be had in celebrating homegrown writers, musicians, filmmakers and illustrators.

While the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless, they have also given away what it is we feel we have lost when we begin to feel helpless and insufficient in the face of their bigotry and triumphalism. Let’s reclaim the right to enjoy anything at all that we please (as long as they abide by constitutional principles). It may not seem like much but that’s also why we shouldn’t cede it: lose it and we have no legs to stand on.

My country is burning. Why should I work?

A few days ago, I found asking myself the following question: My country is burning, why should I work? I ended up with some (admittedly inchoate) thoughts, delineated below.

I’m trying to fight off this abject helplessness I’m feeling and edit some science articles, and failing. I’m not able to justify to myself why I shouldn’t drop everything and rush to Delhi (at this time, the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia is about to peak). At the same time, deep in my heart and mind, I know there must be some reason to persevere with what one likes to do and is interested in doing instead of rushing to the frontlines at every sign of trouble.

Somewhere in this maze of thoughts, there is sure to be an illustrative story about duty and country – about the insidious diminishment of one endeavour in favour of another. Yes, we must resist the forces of tyranny and fascism, but there is less and less freedom to choose any forms of resistance other than pouring out on the streets, raising your hands and shouting slogans.

I have nothing against peaceful protest but I have everything against how other forms of protest have been rendered less useful, or entirely meaningless, largely by the same entity whose institutional violence instigated these protests in the first place. This isn’t a question of convenience but of effectiveness: If many of us are out protesting on the street, how many among us are there because other forms of resistance no longer work?

With notable exceptions, the press these days comprises organisations ranging from supine to malicious. Democratic institutions, like many lower courts, various government bodies and even the executive, have been press-ganged into the national government’s majoritarian agenda. The polarisation has become so sharp and the political opposition so negligible that it seems nearly impossible to counter India’s extreme-right politics with anything but politics of other extremes.

In such a time, what does it mean to focus on science communication? To be abundantly clear: I don’t mean focusing on science communication – or any endeavour not apparently connected to the maintenance of a democracy – instead of protesting. I mean joining a protest in the morning, and editing science articles in the evening. That is, where in your work lies the justification to do what you’re doing, simply because you’ve always liked doing it, and which empowers you the same way a resistance movement empowers its participants (at least if you believe you shouldn’t have to protest in order to express your participation and involvement in the country’s wellbeing)?

There is a terribly clichéd example from a previous era: that of starving children in Africa. But in that case, resolution was very easy to access. More recently and closer home, every time ISRO launches satellites to the Moon and Mars, some people in India complain that the country should focus on fixing smaller problems first. Here, too, the road to clarity is evident, if somewhat meandering, taking recourse through economic principles, technological opportunities and (thankfully) a bit of common sense.

However, going from science communication to resisting fascism seems more difficult than usual, although I refuse to admit it’s impossible. There must be a way.

A friend recently told me, “The onslaught on science and reason is part of the fascist agenda, too, and that must be resisted.” Indeed! This is an important perspective… but somehow it also seems insufficient because – again – the tunnel from ‘critical thinking’ to ‘healthy democracy’ has caved in. The one from ‘curious about the world’ to ‘healthy democracy’ is not even on the map, as if we are forgetting that the right to information is one of the foundational principles of a functional democracy, and that science since the early 20th century at least has been one of the dominant ways to obtain such information.

At a colloquium in August last year, Raghavendra Gadagkar, the noted ecologist at IISc, Bengaluru, described two periods that background the practice of science communication: wartime, when it is deployed with uncommon urgency and specificity of purpose, often to beat back a troublesome claim or belief, and peacetime, when it narrates various kinds of stories united only broadly in theme and often in pedagogic form.

The issue is with peacetime science communication and its perceived relevance. In India at least, the simplistic notions that the fascist narrative often reduces more nuanced arguments to present themselves to the typical reader in too many ways for scientists and its communicators to grapple by themselves. When they do, it’s most likely during wartime, and their – our – heightened effectiveness during these episodes of engagement, such as it is, could mislead us into believing science communication is effective and necessary, at least as gauged by quantitative metrics.

Our effectiveness depends on two things: the circumstances and the culture. The circumstances of communication are in our hands, such as the language, topic, presentation, etc. Subversive, small-minded politics erodes the culture, reducing the extent to which good science communication is in demand and pushing its place in the public conversation to the margins. Scicomm in this scenario becomes an esoteric specialisation treated with special gloves in the newsroom and as an optional extra by the readership.

This in turn is why if science communication, or communication of any sort, is to be effective during wartime, it must be kept up during peacetime as well. More specifically, science writers, reporters, editors and communicators of all hues should help in the fight against rhetoric that would reduce a multifaceted issue into a unidimensional one, that would flatten the necessary features of scientific progress into technological questions. We need to preserve the value of good science communication in peacetime as well. But thanks to the unfortunate sensationalist tendencies of journalism, often (but not always) motivated by commerce, such resistance will require more strength and imagination than is apparent.

One battle at a time.

Irrespective of whether you have joined the protests, you must at all other times – through your work, actions and words – keep authoritarian narratives at bay. And it’s because these modes of resistance have been annulled that a physical protest, one of whose strengths lies in numbers, which in turn renders it immutably visible, has become the most viable and thus the dominant display of opposition.

Standing in this moment and looking back at the last few years, some of us (depending on where our ideological, political and moral axes intersect) see a landscape mutilated by the slow violence of right-wing nationalism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act as the absolute last straw. I, a science communicator, am protesting every day – beyond the protests themselves – by reviving the formerly straightforward connections from curiosity and critical thinking to a plural, equitable, just and secular democracy.

Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0

A return to Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0
Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0

Why he was my favourite and why I think he’s irreplaceable

The first time I read Umberto Eco, I thought to myself – How could one guy know so much? It’s obscene, the amount of detail in his books. First there was Foucault’s Pendulum, with more than its share of Latin American mysticism and continental conspiracy theories, and then The Name of the Rose, with page after page of the history of the Catholic Church and its various schisms (in the order of my reading). If Eco had been in his twenties or thirties today, he’d have been on Adderall all day and on the Internet all day to have been able to write either of the books – or any of his other works of fiction, for that matter, only a few of which I’ve been able to finish. Barely.

But I loved him. Despite the fevered ‘ramblings’ he’d sometimes launch into in his stories, the things he wrote – which I’ve only ever been able to call his “imaginary astronomies” (a term he coined) – fit together. There was an unbroken coherence carried through the books, an undisputed convergence of thought. Three things about the way he constructed his narrative, across hundreds of pages, is what I also tell people to keep in mind when they ask me if they should write a book: 1) be able to describe the entire premise in one not-too-long sentence, 2) know from the get-go what it is that you’re writing about, and 3) bloody well stick to it no matter how much you think your readers will enjoy your indulgences.

This is why Eco is a difficult read, not a bad read – not a bad read by far. The unwavering intensity of his writing, and of his commitment to seem to be chronicling something (that could have happened in the past or in the future, notwithstanding the use of pseudoscience*) as opposed to be vainly conjecturing something, is what made his fiction worth committing to. This is why his ramblings weren’t ramblings in a real sense of the word; they formed a necessary part of the overall context in which his plots were situated. (And I believe The Name of the Rose was as big a success as it was because it had all these things going on and a Perry Mason-esque murder mystery.)

And this is why I was really saddened to hear of his passing. To me, he was the master and (once*) sole practitioner of a style that brought an immense, unbridled existential multiplicity – as a personal sense of ourselves can often be – together with great writing. And if he’s gone, so is this style diminished.

On the role of silence in communication

His far-ranging interests stemmed from what he was essentially interested in: the use of not-necessarily self-contained systems of signs to convey meaning, and their points of failure (obviously vastly simplified). This could be in the form of investigating the role of a language in shaping a culture, the culturally agnostic and psychologically cognisant placement of signages in public transportation, the anatomy and function of television advertisements to engender demand, even tracking on generational scales the rejection of various hypotheses in the natural sciences.

At a lecture Eco delivered at the Italian Association of Semiotics in 2009, titled ‘Censorship and Silence’, he touched upon something very relevant to incidents playing out in India at the moment.

The error made by La Repubblica in its campaign against [Silvio] Berlusconi was to give too much coverage to a relevant story (the party at Noemi’s house). If, instead, it had reporter something like this – “Berlusconi went into Piazza Navona yesterday morning, met his cousin, and they had a beer together … how curious” – it would have triggered such a series of insinuations, suspicions, and embarrassments that the premier would have resigned long ago. In short, a fact that is too relevant can be challenged, whereas an accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.

The authoritarianism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government has resulted in a strong polarisation of the national political scene as well as of India’s mainstream media. It’s impossible to write something without being forced to take sides – and should you still remain defiant, a side is cast for you as being the right fit. And in this acerbic environment, debate is exceedingly impossible: your suggestions are already insinuations, you already owe someone an apology. In place of Berlusconi seen getting a beer with his cousin at the Piazza Navona, there’s a student named Umar Khalid studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and who may have been involved in a debate about whether Afzal Guru was a martyr (even if he had been engaged in one, it shouldn’t matter).

In fact, the extent to which the false equation of Islam with terrorism has been entrenched was demonstrated by Khalid’s language, specifically in a statement he issued when he ‘emerged from hiding’. He said, “My name is Umar Khalid but I am not a terrorist.” (Emphasis added.) Saying ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ would’ve strengthened the assertion (that being Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist) while using ‘but’ allows for the interpretation that Khalid is an exception.

… as a result of noise, we have a deliberate censorship – this is what is happening in the world of television, in creating political scandals, and so forth – and we have an involuntary but fatal censorship whereby, for reasons that are entirely legitimate in themselves (such as advertising revenue, product sales, and so forth), an excess of information is transformed into noise. This (and here I am moving from communications to ethics) has also created a psychology and morality of noise. … This great need for noise is like a drug; it is a way to avoid focusing on what is really important. Redi in interiorem hominem: yes, in the end, the example of Saint Augustine could still provide a good ideal for the world of politics and television.

(Redi in interiorem hominem is Latin for ‘return to the inner man’.)

One of the most fascinating things I learnt when working at The Hindu, Chennai, was of an entity called the filler. Before joining the The Hindu, and having been an avid reader of the once-vaunted newspaper for many years before my employment, the distinction between more important and less important articles was made only in terms of how much space they occupied and what graphic elements accompanied them. But looking at the newspaper from within the organisation, I found that some of the smaller articles, the fillers spanning about 150-300 words, were sometimes used to fill the odd gaps but otherwise contained nothing of substance.

Television channels do this, too – plugging moments of what would otherwise have been filled with silence with stories-that-aren’t-stories. These usually take the form of wild speculations, claims backed by little evidence, extrapolating data so it seems to suggest a conspiracy, or simply letting a news anchor with scant regard for the gravity of her/his position rant on live TV. Eco closes his essay with an invitation to examine the “semiotics of silence in political debate – in other words, the long pause, silence as creation of suspense, silence as threat, silence as agreement**, silence as denial**, silence in music.” (Emphasis added.) I’m anxious that the more we move away from being comfortable with silence, the more we’ll cede control of a powerful instrument of discourse to the Authority. Even now, we rally to raise our voices and register ourselves in the face of an outrage at JNU, perpetrated in full by a political hegemon adept at deflecting criticisms with claims that are not claims and with accusations that are not accusations. With noise.

*I say ‘once’ because of the rise of Steven Erikson, but then I also say the style honed by Eco is diminished by his passing because epic fantasy fiction, which Erikson writes, is yet to receive mainstream literary recognition.

**Both of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled by not uttering a word of condemnation against recent and flagrant cases of (physical and mental) violence incited by members of his party.