Comic realism

Classical Indian comics basically train young minds to suck up to the stereotypes of the status quo
Nandini Chandra Delhi 

Bahadur: I think we'll rest here and have our supper.
Sukhia: Not our last supper I presume!Operation Cancer, 1985. 

The Bahadur series featuring the tall and lanky Indian kick-ass hero, clad in blue jeans and a saffron kurta, took off in the late 1970s under the auspices of Indrajal Comics, devoted to a medley of superheroes. Bahadur (The Brave) was the baby of Aabid Surty, a maverick Hindi writer and painter. Surty conceived Bahadur in 1976, published by Bennet and Coleman, the Times of India group. 

Its popularity soon surpassed that of the western superhero gallery of Phantom, Mandrake and Tarzan. Surty's signature disappeared from the credit pages after a couple of years, to be replaced by Jagjit Uppal's name. Indeed, Surty has publicly claimed that he was cheated and pushed out, and in the absence of a written agreement, he could not sue the company. 

Having registered Bahadur in his name in recent years, the copyright issue is finally resolved and a new updated version is expected to come out soon, more than 20 years after the series closed down. Surty's friend, the late Govind Brahmania, however, remained the fingers behind the artwork for its entire career stretching till 1990. 

Surty came upon the idea of an Indian crime buster when a central minister in an interview on dacoity said that it was not possible for the police to have a chowkie (post) in every village and that people should organise themselves into self-defense squads. According to Surty, "The concept that people should learn to defend themselves and not depend on the system always was so inspiring that even if it had come from the devil I would have grabbed it." 

The other inspiration was the Gandhian discourse of a "change of heart" led by Bhoodan leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave, the latter having facilitated the surrender of dacoits in 1972. For instance, both Bahadur and Sukhia have a dacoit-tainted past. Sukhia was an informer for the dacoit Shaitan Singh, while Bahadur's father was the dreaded dacoit, Bhairon Singh, who was killed in a police encounter. The opening issues are devoted to the narrative of reform, rescuing both the men from the stranglehold of revenge and crime, and inspiring them to found and join the 'Citizen's Security Force' (CSF). 

Despite the so-called soft approach of reform towards dacoits, the comic fails to probe or elaborate the rich history and sociology of crime in the Chambal valley, the close linkages of crime with privilege. In fact, the change of heart narrative presumes a simple progression from the horrid past to a positive future.

It shows the police chief, Vishal, walking Bahadur through the scenes of massacres committed by his father, thus disabusing him of the romantic picture of his father as a Robin Hood figure, created by his mother. The change of heart then implies a coming to terms with the brutal and criminal past as much as a denunciation of his parents, and a shifting of allegiance to the police chief, who becomes the 'father substitute'. 

However, this modern leap of faith to the nation and its security-oriented State apparatus does not imply a clean break from the past. The un-modern past comes back to haunt the aspiration for modernity in different ways. This could also be due to the fact that the bulk of the later titles were written by Uppal whose commitment to the project of modernity might not have been as unequivocal as that of Surty. In later issues, for instance, Bela, Bahadur's girlfriend, is suddenly shown demure in a sari, doing the bidding of Bahadur. 

So what was the original idea of the modern in Bahadur comics?

Jaigarh, The HQs of the Central Security Force, probably based on a CRPF/BSF model, is a sylvan town nestling in the Aravallis. With its well-tended gardens and parade grounds where earnest boys are being trained to fight crime and terror, it is extremely regimental and grid-like. How has this emerged from the mind of a man given to chaotically paint his ceilings and floors for lack of canvas? 

The larger world is replete with the goods and leisure institutions of the Ideological State Apparatus -- the world of night clubs, the Rajdhani Express, boarding schools, holiday inns, erstwhile princely estates. These in turn  provide the setting for smugglers in breeches, people drinking tea from china teapots, binoculars, jogging tracks, horse riding, thumbs-up signs. 

In tandem with the classical plot of the spy novel, real geographical places are evoked to serve the interest of tourism. The terai region of Nepal is invoked for flesh trade and drug trafficking; the splendour of Rajasthani forts and palaces for treasure hunts and museum robberies; the ski resorts of the mountains for a thinly veiled Kashmir, anticipating cross-border terrorism of a few years later.

Terrorists and smugglers are as yet indistinguishable with names like Gurung and Mizo on the Nepali side and Cheena, Akira, Sicca and Angira on the Pakistani side. Terrorism, fortunately, has nothing to do with religious fanaticism or religion. It is merely smuggling on a bigger scale, breaching national security. 

Hence, borders are extremely crucial to the plots. Smugglers are usually tied to the princely estates--attaches, fake princesses, curators, but overall, the sanctity and glory of the princely family is held intact. In The Curse of the Guarding Spirits (Vol. 23, No. 38, September 1986), Saheb Singhji, the old, loyal caretaker of the fort at Jaigarh, who has guarded the royal treasure with his life, is heartbroken at the thought of having to give it away to the State. Bahadur intervenes to ensure that the treasure remains part of the private museum collection. 

The royal heirloom is thus naturalised as legitimate ancestral wealth since it does not have any obvious taint of ill-gotten wealth. The definition of crime then tends to hinge on the definition of what is regarded as unfair means, and what is legitimate wealth, a necessarily ideological position. The comic defines smuggling as unfair means not because it is harmful to the national economy, but because the objects of smuggling such as diamonds, heroin, and women, cannot be seen as legitimate counters of wealth. 

If things can be appropriated in a legitimate manner, or if it can be proven that what is appropriated is not private property, then it is not regarded as criminal. For instance, the securing of the treasure in the private museum is not directly beneficial to the nation, except in the narrow sense that it consolidates the broad ruling coalition between the State and the landed elite through mutual give and take, which is seen as legitimate. 

Ostensibly, the comic's moral universe is organised according to the progressive logic of the modern nation-state. The fact that Bahadur donates all his prize money to the building of CSF is part of this moral economy. 

At the other end of the spectrum is the issue of legitimacy, which depends on one's social and cultural capital, tied up with pre-modern hierarchies. The rural-urban topography deployed in the comic does not brook any conflict of class, caste and gender discrimination. That is why the villager Sukhia, who joined the CSF in his 50s, can be shown in the middle of a jungle operation, punning about the last supper (see epigraph). 

Bahadur's girlfriend Bela is from Pipli. Her father is a 'Sethji', a landed elite. She is a black belt in karate and a postgraduate in chemistry and microbiology. What is more, Bahadur and Bela are implied to be in a live-in relationship. They make flirtatious references to marriage, which does not figure seriously in their day to day lives. Most heartening is the fact that while Bahadur is shown to be concerned, he is not overly protective of Bela. He knows that she can take care of herself. 

The socially and regionally diverse players, like the rustic village chief Mukhia from the Hindi belt with his signature phrase "kasam ganga mai ki" (pledge in the name of Ganga, 'holy river' as mother symbol) and the English-speaking south Indian scientist Prof Srikant, are shown to move along a non-hierarchical field. 

How do we explain these fantastic social equations between people who are located at what can only be described as unequal places? Is it possible to validate the truth of this nostalgia that India was a friendly and equal place in the good old days, and that small towns in which we (the middle class) spent our growing up years were actually more cosmopolitan than the real cosmopolitan? 

How does the nostalgia of this representation square with the utopian crime narrative in which the future is always brighter because it would have borne the fruits of Bahadur-like efforts? How does one reconcile the supposed modernity of the small town to the real history of Chambal in the 1970s and 1980s which saw massacres like the one at Behmai (1981), where Phoolan Devi's gang mowed down 22 Thakurs in what was evidently a caste and gender-based revenge killing?

This changing caste/class character of the dacoits is not captured in the comics at all. Most of the dacoits in the comics are Thakurs or Muslims. Nor are the causes for the sudden escalation of dacoit activity post-Independence registered. 

It has been remarked that the 13 districts of the Chambal, infamous for being hospitable to the dacoits, traversing the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, were part of a princely set up, and the princes, including the British who took over from them, generally followed a policy of patronising them. These early dacoits, mostly from upper-caste Thakur and Rajput clans, were naturally held in high esteem, such as the famous Daku Man Singh. They were given plum positions and privileges in return for muscled favours. 

With Independence, there was no significant change in the caste and class composition of the Indian ruling class, but nevertheless, the rhetoric of the new nation obliged them to establish a basic decorum of law and order. Thus the dacoits who had enjoyed protection for years began to come under attack. Combined with this were the severe drought conditions which plagued the area in the two decades after the transition of power, changing the demographic profile of those who were bandits. Increasingly, Gujjar and Gadaria tribals and Dalit peasants were the ones who turned baghi (rebels). 

There were at least 30 female dacoits operating in the years between the 1950s and 1980s. Phoolan Devi, the most famous of them, was from the Mallah (boatpeople) community. According to a study conducted on female dacoits (The Birth of Women Dacoits: A Case Study of UP and MP, Krestar Educational and Welfare Society, Gwalior, 2007), the abysmally low sex ratio in this region, sometimes as low as 400 to 1,000, and the common practices of female foeticide, abductions and rape by dacoit gangs as a way of resolving family and land disputes, are responsible for women taking to dacoity. 

Is it possible that the handsome figure of the sexually independent Bela, turned out in slacks and jumpers, is a displacement of the social pathology of the lower-caste, sexually abused female dacoit of the Chambal seeking vendetta?

Similarly, in some, of the later comics, one begins to see the logic of terror unfolding as a direct offshoot of the smuggling narrative. In Operation Cancer, Bahadur is summoned by the army and Intelligence Bureau (IB) to capture Angira who deals in heroin smuggling and terrorism and has established his sovereignty over the no man's land on the other side, a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The need to crush this madman through subterfuge and counter-espionage is repeatedly impressed upon the reader, because the use of direct force would attract the wrong kind of international opinion. The IB chief remarks that it would be playing straight into his hands. Operation Cancer is about extraditing Angira to India to face a proper trial and persecution, but the option to kill him is equally desirable because "he will surely have no qualms in putting a bullet through your body". 

In the present context of fake encounters, extra-judicial killings and government-sponsored private militias such as the Salwa Judum, these tentatively emerging ideas of counter-espionage and popular justice in the mid-1980s take on an ominous air, especially since they were expressed in comic books that were supposedly shaping young minds. They compel us to examine our comic book notions of crime and criminals, seen in terms of unmitigated evil, automatically dispensing with the need for a judicial trial. This disregard for judicial structures and an excessive investment in popular justice is echoed across a broad array of Hindi films as well. 

In the scheme of the early Bahadur comics, the dacoits are shown as barbarous, killing their victims through innovative torture tactics such as the one in which the person is buried in a pit, with his head sticking out. A horde of galloping horses is then made to trample over his head, crushing it to bits. Then there are stories of bestial dacoits who "suck blood like fruit juice". The police are unquestioningly good, if a trifle overworked and understaffed. Caught between these two poles of evil - villains and the limited means of the police force - it is left for the righteous and dutiful citizen to evolve his own protection. 

But even as villagers are encouraged to stand up for their own security, they are not supplied arms by the State. In a weird twist, they have to prove their worthiness to receive guns. So the first encounter of the CSF is one in which the boys fight it out with bows and arrows, smoke screens which allow them to confiscate the arms of the raiding dacoits. The idea is not to bar the use of guns or modern arms, but to establish the fact of State permission, which, judging by the number of unlicensed weapons, is ultimately a formal requirement. 

The current ratio of the number of unlicensed to licensed arms in the Chambal area is almost double, around 50,000 unlicensed for every 25,000 licensed arms. It seems every third pillion driver in the Gwalior highway carries a gun. 

On the one hand, there is an increasing militarisation of civil society, on the other, the sublimation of the notion of terror as a super-ordinate category, transcending the notion of crime itself. By association, this has turned the crime of simple money grabbing into a commonplace phenomena, as witnessed in the representation of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scams. While Islamic terror plots or those foisted by the Maoists are seen as ultimate dangers, threatening the sovereignty of the nation, the open loot in the CWG is translated into cases of individual or even collective corruption, endemic but not structural; so that it no longer deserves to be treated on par with anti-national crimes of terrorism. 

The defaulters/scamsters in the CWG games can be punished later, but the Maoists and stone-pelting Kashmiri kids have to be taken care of immediately - and fatally. 

It is perhaps not an accident that the teargas shell that blew the brains of 17-year-old Tufail Ahmed Muttoo, the protesting Kashmiri youth, was made in the BSF academy at Tekanpur, on the Gwalior highway, where mustard is cultivated to produce teargas, the only such facility in Asia. It is also not accidental that the 2,923 acres of land (gifted by BJP leader, late Rajmata Scindia of the royal family of Gwalior, in 1965) over which the BSF training academy is spread out, is a prototype of the Central Security Forces HQs in Jaigarh; this is a true legacy of uneven modernity, which, by taking from the privileged, simultaneously adds to its legitimacy and compromises the nature of justice. 

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi, and the author of The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967 to 2007)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2010

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