Writing on the wall

Despite being a teacher of biology, I have been fascinated by history. In particular by revolutions: the violence unleashed by them, the wisdom which follows them and finally by the apathy in which such wisdom ends.

On July 13, 1793, during the height of the French revolution, a woman, with a dagger hidden under her clothes, entered an apartment heavily guarded by French revolutionaries. Evading the guards she managed to enter the toilette of a man. Finding him bathing in his bathtub, she plunged the dagger into his chest. Revolutionary guards found the woman still seated next to the dead man and took her prisoner. Even before the dead man was buried, the woman was led to the guillotine.

The man assassinated was Jean-Paul Marat, a French revolutionary. His assassin was Charlotte Corday, a royalist who had vowed allegiance to the monarch, Louis XVI.  Marat’s murder by Charlotte  represents a clash of ideals. Marat, called ‘ami du peuple’ by the people of France, was their hero.

He had with a flourish of his pen signed the death warrant of a number of French aristocrats, including the emperor of France. Charlotte was not alone in having avenged the monarchy. Within months after the death of Marat, Robespierre, the brainchild of the French revolution, himself fell prey to the guillotine.

Within a few decades, the French monarchy had been reinstated. The Russian revolution took a very similar turn, when after decades, Gorbachev denounced it with two simple words — ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika.’ As recently as 2006, our little Himalayan neighbour, Nepal, experienced a revolution. And as I write this, the Arab nations are in turmoil.

Is it that revolutions accomplish little? After all, the French revolution did create a document which emphasised the ‘rights of man.’ It was communist Russia which succeeded in putting the first man into space. Rather than ask ourselves whether the turmoil caused by revolutions is worth some of the positive changes they bring, we need to ask ourselves why revolutions take place at all.

If it is true that Marie Antoinette had said “if they don’t have bread, let them eat cake”, then that insensitive statement may well have precipitated the French revolution. Perhaps the cause for the anger and frustration in the masses is the corruption of an insensitive ruling class. We need to weed out corruption from politics, public and government life. Before a Marat or Robespierre emerges from the masses — a Marat who believes in re-inventing the guillotine rather than ‘bailing’ out the corrupt. So before the air is filled with the stench of revolution, let us read the writing on the wall.

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