Anti-rape protests and the hubris of the Indian intellectual are trapped in a media ghetto. The argument that a new politics outside parties is emerging is vacuous
Manisha Sethi Delhi
The recent protests over the terrible gangrape of a young girl in the heart of the capital has sent social commentators into paroxysms, as they are seeing in it a reflection of Tahrir Square, an uprising of gigantic proportions, an upsurge of the new generation, and the arrival of the citizen-activist, who, while being tech-savvy, is equally willing to rough it out on the street.
The main arguments of these commentators are: a) the protests mark the rise of a new kind of protest and protester — some even calling it ‘return of the protest’; b) it represents deepening of democracy because this protestor is demanding answers from the political system and participating in law-making; and c) that this protest will politicise the middle class protester giving her/him greater empathy with the marginalised.
Any critical assessment of the character of the protest is being attacked as intellectual snobbery or Left Brahminism and every critic swiftly dispatched to the ‘dustbin of history’. The continuing commentary — and celebration, one may say — however, demands that we subject this protest to a closer analysis.
The Unmarked Citizen-Activist
The new protester is touted as a unique species, for s/he is unfettered by the “obvious markers of caste or community that tend to dominate our public life” (Yogendra Yadav, “This New Politics”, January 2, 2013, The Indian Express). The unmarked citizen is surely the big lie of Indian democracy. The normalcy — indeed normativity — of caste Hindus who have renounced their primordial identities is a construct carefully cultivated, in part by academia, and in part by the media machinery. Anti-Mandal was about preserving merit, not privileges. Ditto for Youth for Equality. And for Anna followers, it was all about ridding the nation of corruption (money has no caste or creed, ergo).
Nation-wide protests and a rally of nine trade unions protesting against price rise, violation of labour laws, unemployment, and for social security, received only a passing mention in Indian media, and that too, for disrupting traffic
On the other end of this argument is cited the simultaneous anonymity of the victim as further proof that these protests were driven simply by a collective and unrelenting experience of sexual violence that all women countenance. It was the ‘ordinariness’ of returning home from a film at 9.30 pm in the night; not being able to find an auto; having to travel by the unreliable and unsafe private buses, that is seen as key to the ‘catharsis’ the rape is said to have triggered. Yes, certainly, it is this ordinariness that spoke to the girls who converged at the weekend protests. It is also an ordinariness that makes Manorama’s rape and murder at the hands of the Assam Rifles in Manipur, extraordinary, if not impossible.
The argument refuses to see that it was this anonymity that allowed many to empathise with her. The girl’s identity was not asked, or revealed, but nonetheless she was not marked out as Dalit or tribal. There were no headlines of ‘Dalit woman raped’, which are routinely ignored and the newspaper turned over.
It is the fantasy of many who became advocates of the protests that this was the moment that would transform the youth and allow them to bond with the marginalised (some already declared this citizen-activist having a “narrow social profile, but not necessarily a narrow social vision”.)
However, neither this proclaimed wide social vision, nor the transformative experience of being doused by water cannons or lathi-charged, had the effect of propelling the spontaneous protesters towards the Supreme Court where a protest to demand justice for Soni Sori was attended by the usual suspects — some teachers and students of JNU, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, filmmakers, journalists and activists numbering less than hundred. Pretty much “the same people who hold demonstrations every other day”.
Law-Making and Democracy
To Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the protests signal that India’s citizens are reclaiming the idea of a republic founded on the rule of law. (“The Year of Law”, January 1, 2013, The Indian Express). Recognising that they can no longer be insulated from violence, venality and corruption, the urban middle classes are finally dirtying their hands in public mobilisation to rescue the rule of law.
But, he says, equally, quite rightly, “In a republic, the rule of law is not founded just on populism, the need for deterrence, or some vague idea of the welfare of the people… law secures our liberty and equality by being a norm grounded in public reason.” This couldn’t be further from the demands of those gathered to express their outrage: they were demanding a law based on sentiments and emotions of revulsion and retribution. A cursory look at the banners and posters at the India Gate protest would suffice to prove that. Cries for tough laws were being made as “fathers” and “brothers”. Anupam Kher, a TV regular, said, “You cannot respond logically to this and say the law will take its own course. I don’t adhere to it because I react as a father, brother, son… and all the people are reacting like this. So castration and public flogging... I don’t care if I’m called a Hindu fundamentalist for this…”
Any critical assessment of the character of the protest is being attacked as intellectual snobbery or Left Brahminism and every critic swiftly dispatched to the 'dustbin of history'
Prasoon Joshi, allegedly the most sensitive lyricist in Bombay cinema today, repeatedly asked for the law to be based on the emotion of fear: ‘We can’t intellectualise. Any society and government has to take care of people and its sentiments. To begin with, what are people afraid of: Murder?”
It was a similar ‘mood of the nation’ that drove the passage of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2008. “The nation expects Parliament to pass these laws today and restore their confidence,” said P Chidambaram, appealing to parliamentarians to pass the law with little debate. “Why are we queasy?” — thundered the moral conscience of the nation which is broadcast at 9 pm every night, “with tough options: tough options against terrorism, tough options against corruption and tough options against crime against women.”
New ProtestEr and the State
How does one see the relationship between this protester and the State? For one commentator, this “protest is … an open, generalised and largely justified contempt of the State”. Can this protest be characterised as contempt for the State, or for what is being described rather un-rigorously as the ‘political class’? A political class which is seen as far removed from the concerns of the middle class, the latter described, again inexactly and falsely, as the nation, people, country and so on.
On the two most significant things that define the Indian State today, no matter which coalition sits on the treasury benches, there appears to be no rupture between the middle class and the State. This is the consensus over neo-liberal economic policy and national security (never mind the titter over FDI which the BJP created to keep its traditional bania support base mollified). It is this class which celebrated the dream of Rising and Shining India, celebrating its almost ‘superpower’ status, and is so utterly believing of the same police it condemns now when it comes to encounter killings and arrests of alleged ‘terrorists’, most of them Muslims, many of them proved innocent after years of torture, degradation and condemnation inside our notorious police and prison system.
What the protests expressed was not contempt for the State but the desire for a tough State, a State that will introduce ever tougher laws to eliminate all that is seen as threatening and dangerous, and will end ultimately in a more authoritarian State. The fear of being reduced to a soft country was all-pervasive: most of all, in the lampooning of the prime minister as effete, mute and ineffectual.
The paragon of toughness, incorruptibility and decisiveness in our present polity, don’t forget, is incidentally, another PM-in-waiting, who rode to power on the back of the same urban middle class freed from caste and community constraints. Much airtime and newsprint during the assembly elections in Gujarat was spent on how Narendra Modi has made the earlier caste calculations of KHAM redundant; indeed, the ‘Patel factor’ was seen as a lamentable return to caste politics.
What’s ‘New’ about this New Politics?
The argument that a new kind of politics is emerging that seeks to go beyond parties is vacuous. There have been protracted movements, at least from the 1970s onwards, which were non-party: the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Chipko, the women’s movement and many more. They were termed new social movements precisely for this reason. They all reimagined the Indian State anew and to a great degree challenged the post-colonial State’s developmental agenda.
To say that “Anna Hazare’s fast had our government and parties bending backwards in a way that bigger mass movements could not do” or that “Exposé by Arvind Kejriwal made the political establishment more nervous than any parliamentary debate”, and that “the present protests… have made the police and their political masters answerable in a way that decades of painstaking work by women’s and human rights movements could not” — is an analysis made in a TV studio, based entirely on superficial footage and assessment.
Anupam Kher, a TV regular, said, 'Youcannot respond logically to this and say the law will take its own course. I don't adhere to it because I react as a father, brother, son...So castration and public flogging...I don't care if I'm called a Hindu fundamentalist for this...'
It negates the influence that movements and struggles, sometimes frustratingly protracted ones, have exercised on the debates: on development, rights of the marginalised, communalism, or the impact that the women’s movement has had in wresting crucial legal changes. Yes, the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy continue to blockade trains every December to draw the attention of the world to their continued suffering and injustice; over 20,000 urban poor marched on the streets of Mumbai around the same time as the Delhi protests were on, to demand housing and a dignified life (but were totally blacked out in print and electronic media). Dayamani Barla, recently released from prison on bail, successfully led a movement against Arcelor-Mittal’s steel plant hell-bent on capturing over 11,000 acres of tribal land in Jharkhand in 2006 and continues to wage fearless struggles. She too was basically blacked out.
Perhaps our commentators and social scientists, called upon as experts by various studios, have become prisoners of the media, daring not to see beyond the bright lights and the booming noise of prime time debate. All that falls outside of its arc is invisibilised and made to disappear.
Why is it, when the poor march on the streets of the cities, they are portrayed as irritants causing trouble to commuters and officegoers: disrupting the rhythm of life, rather than deepening democracy? Nation-wide protests and a rally of nine trade unions protesting against price rise, violation of labour laws, unemployment and for social security in 2011 only received passing mention in the Indian media, and that too, for disrupting traffic, (‘Trade union rally brings traffic to a halt’, February 23, 2011). Surely, these commentators can’t pretend to be innocent of the ways in which some sections are presented and welcomed as citizen-activists while others are cursed and consigned to netherland.
The subaltern, having been evicted from the State, its institutions, and even popular culture, has now also been pushed out of the field of protest. The middle class citizenry now demands its inclusion in the political space, not via the political process, but by demonstrating its might on the street. A might that is considerably and exponentially inflated through the media. The oft-repeated sentiment that ‘my tax-payer’s money’ should not be used to pay for life imprisonment — whether of Afzal or a rape accused — reflects that sense of entitlement over the country’s resources and its policies.
Indeed, if we refuse to join these dots: between the rise of middle class protests, a jingoistic media which forces its agenda on the front burner, and our gradual descent into authoritarianism, we do so at our own peril.
Manisha Sethi is the author of Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among the Jains (Routledge, 2011). She is currently Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.