If asked, which song is sung throughout the world from East to West and North to South with the same enthusiasm and gusto, the answer most likely shall be “We shall overcome”. Legendary American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson had composed this song some eight decades ago, words and tune of which have been memorized at heart by the millions. It was used as the marching song when Martin Luther King Jr. led demonstrations on the streets of America demanding equal rights and human dignity. This innocuous song scared the US capitalist system so much so that it forced Paul Robeson to leave the country.
The well-known poet Girija Kumar Mathur translated this immortalised song in Hindi in the early fifties for All India radio. I learnt it in my school days then. It has acquired the status of a signature song throughout the country over the last five decades. Every now and then it may be heard- in a school assembly, in a corner meeting, in a public demonstration and even in an official function. From school kids to factory workers sing this song and get filled with renewed energy. Besides Hindi, it has been translated into many a languages of the world. “We shall overcome” has become sort of a Mantra for the people fighting against exploitation and injustice.
But as it, more often than never, happens in India, we take sadistic pleasure in defacing and demolishing the symbols that give us strength and solace. We don’t let go a single opportunity to insult Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s image on the Hundred-rupee note has become a code-word amongst the palm-greasers. A rubbish phrase like “Majbooree ka naam Mahatma Gandhi” (Helplessness, thy name is Mahatma Gandhi) is often used in common parlance. I have known senior Congress Party leaders reveling in dirty jokes on the Mahatma. We have met out the similar treatment to this song.
By we, I don’t mean the ordinary Indian citizen, but the powers that be in this country. The people who control the politics and economy of India have no respect for anything but power and affluence. The rest is the subject of scorn. The infamous stockbroker Harshad Mehta and his ilk represent this class.
It is the anti-societal mindset of the power elite that has recently produced a pervert version of “We shall overcome”. A few days ago, I was aghast and deeply anguished to see a TV advertisement of “All Out” brand mosquito repellent. It showed a shot of innumerable mosquitoes singing the song during the night, and the repellent machine swallowing them. After all, what was the message of this ad? That the people are nothing but mosquitoes or that the song was fit only to be sung by mosquitoes, or that the people who sing this song are no more than tiny mosquitoes, which can be swallowed by the capitalist machine!
The advertiser may argue that it was not their intention. Or that they were just producing an advertisement in a lighter mood. The reply will not be wrong. The class that has adopted Harshad Mehta as its role model is not expected to offer a better explanation. The elite institutions of India like IIM and IIT are producing hundreds of young managers every year for running the financial machinery of this country. They excel in ten-second quiz competitions, but they have hardly any understanding of the broader realities of the country and the society. A person is just a customer, and the chart of their sentimentality does not go beyond the loss and profit!
It is not that the aristocracy of this country has chosen to ridicule “We shall overcome” alone. One after another advertisements appear on TV that denigrate finer values of life, dignity of labour, qualities of head and heart and instead glorify glamour, money and personal profits. A currently running advertisement of ‘Wheel’ detergent cake takes a dig at the humble washerman. Sometime ago, another ad-film of a washing powder depicted the washerman as an ass because he keeps company of the ass (customary in Indian set-up, ass being beast of burden).
The multinational soft drink manufacturers have smelled a huge potential in the vast Indian market. This has led to a fierce ad-war amongst the cola-companies. Such ads display an arrogant and careless attitude towards social sensibilities. One ad used three monkeys of Mahatma Gandhi, to say the least, in an undesirable manner. Another ad showed Indian scientific establishment in a poor light and questioned its research and findings. An advertisement for a cosmetic cream had the temerity to call the women having cracked heels as maidservants. And of course, there is no dearth of the ads promoting fair skin as the standard of a woman’s beauty. This is the irony of the country where ninety-percent women and men have brown skin.
This kind of depiction raises several questions. The young persons who make these ad-films, where have they been brought up - in India or somewhere else? If they have been raised in India, then what kind of education to them is being imparted? Is there a well-planned strategy in the training to cut them off from the broader realities of the country? Is it a deep conspiracy to raise an army of new wage slaves in this era of neo-imperialism? Is it that India has once again become a colony or is well on that path?
What is the responsibility of average Indian at this juncture? It may be that protests of such ads results in withdrawal of an ad here and another there, but the larger question remains that how to combat the mentality working behind it? It raises another question. Should we not take a fresh look at the educational institutions that prepare the wage slaves and the education system itself that serves to strengthen the plutocracy? Should we not start to identify other instruments as well that has given stranglehold to neo-imperialist power in this country?
It seems imperative to me in order to protect our political freedom, democracy and human dignity that we should be on the look out for the parasites that are weakening our social structure from within. The references that I have made are but a small part of the offensive launched on our society. We shall overcome, definitely, but for that we need to fight. It will not suffice to sing the song.
Written and translated by Lalit Surjan
Published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 4th December 2003
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