Liberative communication for Genuine participation

By Kishore SaintonFeb. 28, 2017in Perspectives

Editorial Comment: This piece was published in late 1981

This dualistic structure of society in India is reflected in the systems of communication. The modern systems of communication comprising the mass media, are based on imported technologies and are urban oriented; the traditional systems of communication, on the other hand, are based on local and regional culture and rely on interpersonal patterns of interaction. This paper suggests ways by which the masses of the rural poor can liberate themselves not only from the deadening weight of regressive tradition but also from manipulation, control and exploitation of elite oriented mass media communication

After the experience of the last two Lok Sabha elections the intellectual community in India is prepared to entertain the possibility that the rural people of India, far from being a moronic mass, have a mind, a personality and a judgment of their own which they are capable of exercising for crucial decisions such as who shall run the affairs of the state. It is the intellectuals who do not have a mind of their own, are constantly depended on conceptual imports and seek legitimation of their work outside their milieu. These historic events have revealed once again not only the gulf that divides the educated elites from the rural masses but they have also shown how inadequate and faulty are the instruments intellectuals use for analyzing, describing and explaining the India reality.

There are several reasons for this. The modern social sciences modelled on the natural and physical sciences, are developed on the premise that there are universal laws which govern the character and functioning of human individuals and societies. They also assume that there is one or other true course of social evolution which every society is destined to follow. It is not difficult to see the imperialist underpinnings of these assumptions. The ‘advanced’ societies which are further along the road of social progress are assumed to have superior knowledge and wisdom without which the ‘backward’ societies cannot move forward. Always the case of technological differentials is cited to prove the point. Yet what holds validity in this field cannot be simplistically and mechanistically applied to the social sphere. In any case, even the fundamental technological and scientific wisdom of the advanced societies are suspect, since it has resulted in a crisis of survival of the human species and its ecological support systems.

The frameworks of knowledge and methods of study about individuals and societies have a powerful cultural bias. They are instruments not only of description and explanation of reality but in their policy impact, they become instruments of the creation of new social reality. It is therefore, of utmost importance that these disciplines of knowledge be appropriate to the social reality they are dealing with. A great and highly evolved socio-cultural tradition like the one in India is not a mere museum for traditional anthropological studies. It is a living reality with powerful generative strengths which have a distinctive character. The Indian ways of perception, understanding, organizing and doing have an evolutionary potential not only for the Indian situation but also for mankind as a whole. There is recognition of this outside India, but within India, the academics whose task it should have been to understand the socio-cultural and psychological characteristics of the Indian reality and to identify its special generative strengths, have chosen the less arduous path of remaining faithful chelas of their Western mentors and masters. The closest some Indian intellectuals come to giving a ‘national’ interpretation of this imported knowledge is to divide their own society into ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive.’ Till they are shocked into the awareness of the knowledge of the ‘primitive’ through events such as the ones mentioned above, our intellectuals continue to consider our villagers ignorant.

A prerequisite of correct understanding is the designing of suitable instruments of observation, description and understanding; in other words, preparing analytical tools and a language of discourse pertinent to the particular reality. This difficult work has not been done, at least not in the academies which have continued to replicate and refine redundant and irrelevant theories and methodologies. It is my contention that describing and explaining behavior, perceptions, thought processes and attitudes of people in India in terms of Pavlovian or Skinnerian behaviorism or Freudian or Jungian psycho-analysis or Piagetian psycho-structuralism is like describing the Hindu Pantheon of beliefs in terms of Christian or Islamic theology. No matter how logical and consistent it may be, it can only be a grossly distorted depiction o the actual phenomenon. Perhaps it is in this context that a well-known economist once remarked that ‘only when the illiterate Indian peasants begin to articulate their insights born of their concrete experience and common reflection that a beginning will be made in authentic indigenous social science in India.’ Until that happens, it might be worth our while to remove our academic blinkers and let the lights of commonsense and intelligent speculation inform our deliberations.

Role of communication

Participation takes place not only through communications but also in communication. No social existence is conceivable without a network of communications these play a vital role in social functioning, maintenance and change. Modes of communication and participation relate to varieties of social relations and structures. They encompass private conversations, folk media, advertising, melas, traditional gatherings etc. They can range from informal, casual exchanges to highly complex institutionalized and ritualized forms of conveying and receiving messages.

In the highly structured Indian society, the institutionalized and ritualized forms of communication are particularly important. These exist as major systems of communication which are maintained with great regularity and permanence. Many of these coincide with the major events in the individual life cycle such as birth, marriage and death, and with seasonal cosmic cycles. Most of these are on an intra-community basis. The traditional community maintains itself in and through these communications. Socio-religious observances and celebrations like marriage and death feasts, prasadis and jati panchayat gatherings, are occasions for intra-group communication while the melas, hats, markets, village panchayat gatherings and great religious melas like Kumbha, are the venues and means for inter-community exchanges.

An Illustration

To illustrate the intricate multidimensionality of tradition modes of participative communication, a celebration in Udaipur, the festival of Gangoch in an Adivasi community, is described below.

Nimechkhada lies north of Udaipur. It is a small Advisai (tribal) hamlet that nestles against the hills of Nimechmeta. Its inhabitants settled there some 30 years ago when their lands were taken away to make room for progress in the form of a Railway Training School. One of the village elders is a prominent Bhakta, a member of the reformist sect amongst the Bhils Last year he led a group of eleven from Nimechkhada and other Bhil hamlets around Udaipur, to make a pilgrimage to Haridwar. They all went not as individuals but as representatives of several hundreds of other Adivasis and carried the remains –asthis– of their deceased elders to be immersed into the holy river.

Today, under the leadership of Bherji, the prominent Bhakta, they were celebrating the festive of Gangoch. Bherji is well-known to us as he has been associated with some of the projects Seva Mandir had undertaken. He invited use to participate in the celebrations. We (my family and I) reached his house in the village in the afternoon. Already there was a large gathering and people were still arriving: women dressed in gay, traditional attire and displaying all the finery they possessed, older men in clear white dhotis and a scattering of young men in bush-shirts and pants. The festivities were heading towards the climax. The last of the pitchers with coconuts were being distributed. My wife and daughter were given one each and invited to worship at the family shrine of Bherji.

In the compound, seated on a carpeted dais was an obviously important Maharaj, quite young but presiding with dignity over the proceedings. I was asked to share the dais with him. I declined the honor and busied myself with taking photographs. Soon all the pitchers had been handed out and the procession began to form. The women held the pitchers and the coconuts on top of their heads. Some in the lead carried special pitchers containing germinated barley. An elephant with a howdah on top had been brought. It was duly worshiped, “Tilaked” and garlanded. The Maharaj, the chief guest, climbed into the howdah and a standard with a striped flag was handed to a bearer in the howdah.

After this, the movement began in earnest with a band in the lead followed by the elephant. Men, women and children who had been waiting all over the village poured out in columns and joined the mainstream. Everyone walked at the elephant’s pace, Women sang songs appropriate to the occasion and quite a few began swaying as they walked and had to be supported. In high, congenial spirits, this community of several thousands made its way to Fatehsagar led by the eleven men who had been in Haridwar, each carrying, as a precious treasure, a sealed metal pot containing waters of holy Ganga. Arriving at the lake the eleven put these Gangajalis in a circle, said ritual prayers and opened the seals. Meanwhile, the men made a chain up and down the steps to the water’s edge. In quick succession the empty pitchers carried by the women were handed down, filled with water and brough to the place where the opened Gangajalis were lying. Each filled pitcher was blessed by the Maharaj and a drop of Ganga water added to it.

When all the pitchers had been filled and thus treated, the procession started back to the village but a qualitative change had occurred in the atmosphere and mood. All the women carrying the filled pitchers were swaying now. They were carrying the spirit of Ganga and it seemed that the Goddess had taken possession of their spirtis. They were beyond themselves in communion with the primeval elements of their racial memory and heritage. Much faster than on the outbound journey, the procession returned to the village. After some rest, Prasad was distributed and the thousands began to depart, taking with them a part of the whole that made up their kinship and community. Those who had come from afar would stay the nigh most of which they would spend in devotional singing and dancing and would leave before daybreak.

Nature of communication

This was Gangoch, a celebration of once in a lifetime which brought together thousands of kinswomen. Through physical presence, interpersonal exchange, ritual and ceremony, song and dance and partaking of common food, the organic bonds of the community had been renewed. In the process, the stature of leadership had been demonstrated and legitimation obtained by secular and religious means. It was a big occasion worthy of a big man who had been made himself bigger in the process.

It should be observed that although that event occurred within the municipal boundaries of Udaipur and had involved thousands of people, it received not attention from the communications managers of contemporary India. No scholars, journalists or medta men were present on this occasion. As far as they were concerned, it was a nonevent, for it belonged to the tribals who are considered ignorant and superstitious.

This points to the gulf that exists between two realities in the Indian situation. The contemporary communication systems function, by and large, as a would apart from the traditional systems of communication. They comprise the various mass media, e.g., radio, films, TV, newspapers and publicity materials, advertising and the systems of extension and educational services. These systems rely heavily on imported technologies and theories of communication for their policy and functioning. A major portion of these is controlled either by the state agencies or by private business as in the case of the press and advertising. To a limited extent, through private education institutions and voluntary adult education agencies, local community-based systems of communication have been evolved. But these are invariably overshadowed by the state controlled and industrial systems.

The audience and clientele of these systems are mainly urban. With the exception of agricultural extension service and advertising related to modern farm inputs, the rural orientation of the mass media is minimal. Yet, despite their limited coverage and cultural distance, their impact is considerable on the rural areas. Their message-dissemination is multiplied a thousand-fold through interpersonal interaction. The ‘Indira wave’ and the ‘Janata Hawa’ are phenomena of a highly communicative culture where messages are carried by word of mouth and travel with the travelers, are discussed, analyzed, commented upon in the teashops, panshops, coffee houses, in busses and trains.

In other words, the primary means of communication in the country still remain what are called traditional. The so-called modern mass media have only modified but not replaced them. The radio and press have given larger regional and national dimensions to these inbuilt processes, but have not altered the basic character of people’s reliance on the word of mouth and speakers’ standing for information. The people, even though illiterate, are by no means passive recipients. They have a highly developed capability for assessing validity and veracity by perceiving the tonal quality, the gestures, the posture and the expression on the speakers’ face. What is heard is further subjected to scrutiny with those who are trusted, or in groups, and is only then accepted or rejected.

This is not to say that truth always triumphs. But that begs the question: whose truth and whose interest? Much of contemporary communication is extremely one-sided: from the center to the periphery. There are urban centers for collection, generation, selection and ordering of information controlled by the state and the ruling elite within it.

In our post-feudal system, they are at best paternalistic and at worst authoritarian. Some observers regard modern communications in even more sinister terms, as an assault on the indigenous culture and personality of the people. The non-governmental centers of communication are either tied to the promotion of particular factional interests or, if objective, they are too abstract and remote in their concern. In the latter category are the academic centers which are usually esoteric and often trapped in conceptual schemes that have no relevance to the Indian rural situation. There is a glaring lack of media of communication and centers of knowledge generation which reflect people’s perceptions, understandings, aspirations and which can act as avenue for developing people’s self-concept and identity in contemporary terms. Only this approach to communication can help the people to liberate themselves from the weight of deadening tradition, on the one hands, and from the distortion of manipulation of elite-oriented communications, on the other.

Because of illiteracy and ignorance in modern times, the masses are subject to manipulation, control and exploitation by those interests who control the means of communication. At the same time, they enjoy a certain degree of immunity and protection from control by virtue of their deep immersion in tradition which has specific as well as universal dimensions. It is in this paradoxical situation that potential has to be sought for modes of communication that can be liberative in the dual sense referred to above: liberative from negative, regressive tradition and from contemporary, oppressive modernization.

Liberative communication

What does this mean and entail? Can it be done? Who is to do it? These questions are addressed in the rest of the paper.

Although internationally attention has been focused on this question by the Brazilian adult educator Paulo Freire, indigenous liberative modes of communication were very much the concern of both Gandhi and Tagore. Both of them wrote prolifically and generally in their native idiom, in one case through journalistic forms in the other through literary and musical expressions. In both instances, they expressed the feelings of aspirations of a wide spectrum of the Indian people; what they said gave hope and courage to millions and inspired them to heroic deeds. All over the country, through the national schools, through ashrams, through the private press and through grassroot organizations, messages were transmitted, consultations effected, strategies developed and actions undertaken. It was national movement but it had been very important regional and cultural regeneration aspects. The indepence movement in India was in every sense a multidimensional ‘cultural action for freedom,’ to use the more topical phrase of Paulo Freire, which evolved highly original modes of communication specific to the Indian rural situation. The prayer meetings, the padayatra the non-violent satyagraha, the fast, the spinning sessions are peculiarly Indian forms of contemporary social and political communication and participation.

Liberative communication as an expression of cultural action for freedom has several important characteristics. In the first place it is organized on the basis of faith in the people. In face, it is the expression of people’s own desires and attempts to be articulate, to share, to participate and to become organized. The life-situation of the masses is sometimes characterized as a culture of silence. Liberative communications are those which help to give voice to the millions and enable them to speak their selves. They are highly region and culture specific and replete with the symbolism, imagery, motifs, commonsense and idom of the particular area.

Of late, the term ‘conscientization’ has been used to signify communications with liberative intent. It means awakening to one’s predicament and situation and becoming energized to deal with the problems that confront one as a member of an oppressed group.  In the Indian context, the concept of chaitanya which implies awareness, sensibility as well as alertness towards nature, life and society, has a far richer content than ‘conscientization.’ Traditionally, the development of chaitanya has been the spiritual prerogative of a few enlightened individuals around whom various sects have evolved, usually drawing followers from the oppressed classes. These have undertaken activities of a reformist and liberative nature in a sporadic isolated manner. With Gandhi and Tagore, this dimension acquired secular and national significance and resulted in historic socio-political action. However, it retained its spiritual moorings with their attendant tendencies toward individualism and obscurantism.

We need to rediscover and reactivise the meaning of this powerful evolutionary impulse in the Indian character. It needs to be salvaged from the blind alleys of self-serving esotericism and delusionary obscurantism, and channelized into fresh cultural action for freedom. The beginnings, of necessity, have to be with the indivudal selves, amongst those who have emerged from the masses and yet have not become alienated from them. These individuals have to deepen and strengthen their chaitanya through experience, work, study, and reflection and in the process, liberate themselves from the constraints of kinship, caste and nowkari. They have to relink themselves with the people, becoming re-immersed in their lives, learn from them and help to develop their awareness and sensibilities towards liberative social and cultural action. There can be no blueprints for this effort, there can only be a broad strategy and approach which may be constantly reviewed and revised. Nor can this be undertaken under patronage and sponsorship of any kind. It has to be sui generis.


This paper has emphasized the role of people’s participation in participatory research and evaluation. In doing so, it has been underscored to the intricate relationship between communication and participation. The nature of communication influences the nature of participation of people. If communication is based on alien concepts and methodologies borrowed from the West, it only tends to alienate the common man. It thereby stultifies his participation. In face, such alien communication is used to further the interests of the elite and perpetuate the oppression of common people.

The indigenous forms of communication need to be rediscovered as much of it has been destroyed by the ‘modernizing’ process. These forms, wherever they still exist, especially in rural areas, have a powerful impact on the people. The examples of prayers, devotional singing and dancing, folk theater, melas, religious events and rituals etc., have been shown to have a liberative potential in terms of people’s action. These liberative communications have to be made an integral part of participatory research and evaluation. Only then will the ordinary people and the oppressed people participate in them in the fullest sense; only then can they initiate liberative action.

First published in Vol.iii Oct-Dec 1981 issue of Social Action.

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