Sparing the Rod


From Newtown to Delhi

In this final month of the year, we (a notoriously vague pronoun, perhaps best reduced to the royal ‘we’) were distracted from our everyday lives by two visitations of unimaginable horror. In Newtown, Connecticut, twenty children were gunned down in their elementary school, along with a half-dozen teachers. And in Delhi, a young woman was raped on a bus, attacked with an iron rod, and then tossed out to die. These are, of course, disconnected incidents, one deadlier than the other, on opposite sides of the world and indicative of different social pathologies. Nevertheless, I want to discuss them in the same frame, not only because they merged in my stomach into a single pool of unexpressed vomit, but also because they suggest some connections between how modern societies generate and respond to extreme violence. In each case, there is a discernible tendency to reduce the problem to a set of symptoms that can be treated with legislation. In each case, there is an explosion of speech around a pit of silence that shields a wider societal culpability.

In a country where school shootings are fairly common, the slaughter in Connecticut was especially horrifying because children were so young, and because the killer was more or less an adult. The American school massacre typically features teenagers being shot by one of themselves: we have learned how to think, talk, and even write black comedies about that scenario. We have not learned to think about child-murder as an act of shooting downwards. We have not learned to imagine what happens to a six-year-old body when it is shot eleven times with a version of the same rifle that is used by the US military. We have learned to accept that school shootings leave some students dead and others wounded, but not to face a situation where there are no wounded, because each child has been carefully executed at close range. I found myself wondering how there could be space for eleven rifle bullets in such small bodies. I could not imagine an answer, so I fell back to thinking of my own daughter, and wanting to pick her up early from daycare and wrap my arms around her small, solemn self. That reaction, I think, was fairly common among friends of mine who have young children, and for parents around the country. We personalized the calamity, withdrawing into ourselves and our families.

In that maneuver, as in all maneuvers, certain refusals and silences are imbedded: the refusal, for instance, to put ourselves fully in the shoes of the police and other first-response personnel who entered the school when the shooting was over. We talk around what they saw: we sympathize with their predicament, we acknowledge that they will be scarred, we are relieved that they have taken that responsibility off our shoulders. We do not invite them to actually describe what they saw. Not even the New York Post will seek out the initial police photographs for its front page. Such images will perhaps be left to the horror movies in ten years’ time, but even then, no director would dare to actually ‘show what happened,’ or linger on the visions for more than a split second.

To do those things would shut us down as a society. It would shut us down not only because it would show us the costs of the Second Amendment, the NRA, inadequate mental health care, and other such specific phenomena, but also because it would show us what we are capable of as a society, and indeed, what we routinely do as a society. It is not, after all, enough of an explanation that Adam Lanza, the killer in Newtown, was mentally ill, or even that he had access to guns. He also had a particular vision of what a man in his situation does, and that vision included shooting first-graders. An individual acts according to the templates with which he is provided, such as the template of the massacre by an angry man (or, for that matter, templates of men having fun in particular ways). Adam Lanza followed the template.

What I am getting at is that killing children is not all that extraordinary in our society. It can, in fact, become almost casual. I am reminded of the supersaturation of popular culture – especially the culture of young males – with the toys, games and pornography of violence, which make shooting at people harmless, aesthetically pleasing and erotic. I am reminded that our most normative form of political organization is based on the idea of legitimate homicide, so that the willingness and ability to kill permeates our idea of what it is to live a worthwhile life. I am reminded of Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai massacre, the phenomenon of ‘collateral damage,’ and the entire premise of nuclear deterrence and strategic bombing. We accept that children will be shot, burned or blown up. We expect only that it will not be our children and that we will not have to look, and are flustered when Hersh – or Adam Lanza – violates that tacit agreement.

Now, on to Delhi: the city where roads, rebels, refugees, invaders, migrant workers and graduate students converge, the city that is always the destination and a little too far, Dilli chalo and Dilli durast, where my wife - unnerved by the experience of being stared at by yet another open-mouthed stranger - snarled 'Kya dekh rahe ho ji? Ghar mein ma-behn nahin hai?' ('What the hell are you staring at? Don't you have a mother or sister at home?' I was reminded of Captain Haddock's encounter with a Nepali porter.) Delhi is simultaneously graceful and ugly, it tends to set women and even men on edge, it has a reputation, it is the notorious 'rape capital.' That sobriquet may be unfair; there are cities where women fare worse. But in Delhi, crowds of angry citizens have been facing off against police armed with water-cannons. They are angry because there has been another rape in the Indian capital. A young paramedical student and her male friend, returning from watching Life of Pi, were waiting at a bus stop at around ten o’clock at night. They were given a ride by an off-duty bus. The bus crew and their joyriding friends – six men in all – immediately began to taunt the couple, then attacked them, beating the man unconscious and raping the woman for over forty minutes. Thrown out of the bus, the victims were discovered by passers-by and hospitalized. The media then descended upon the story, and a crescendo of public rage quickly developed, directed at the government, the police, and Delhi itself. There have been calls in Parliament to amend the law and institute the death penalty for rape; the demand appears to have overwhelming public support.

On the surface, the violence inflicted upon the couple in this particular case is appalling but not extraordinarily so – not at the level needed to bring out enraged citizenry, water-cannon and hangmen. Yes, the couple had been badly beaten; yes, the woman had been raped; but those things happen in Delhi, and in other cities. Other people shake their heads and carry on. The extraordinary horror of the bus rape lies below the surface. Tucked away in the coverage of the incident, on the first day, was a report of just what been done to the woman by her attackers. She had been raped with an iron rod (specifically, the crank that is used to raise and lower the jack), rupturing her uterus and destroying her intestines. Doctors expected that she would die, and it speaks volumes for the staff at Safdarjung Hospital that she is still alive.

From the second day onwards, as if by a quiet agreement, the details of the assault vanished from the news. The story continued to dominate the news but the text changed subtly. A coded language emerged: the woman had been ‘beaten’ with the iron rod, although it had become necessary for surgeons to remove nearly her entire intestinal tract, the attackers were ‘sadistic,’ they had ‘tortured’ the woman, the police chief had never before encountered such a brutal rape. Nobody is deluded about what happened on the bus, of course. Everybody knows exactly what took place, and is horrified. That is why there are crowds, police batons and panicky politicians on the streets. But the particulars were deemed so shameful, so unspeakable, that they had to be rendered in a combination of silences and codes.

How do we unpack the horror that is shrouded by this rendition? In an editorial in The Hindu, Ratna Kapur offered one approach. The attack on the unnamed woman (who is now being called Amanat in the press, in yet another display of coded speech) represents the fury of men confronted with ‘smartly dressed women’ in all walks of Indian life, Kapur wrote: as men perceive themselves losing exclusive control of their social and economic bastions, they (and the less educationally and economically competitive among them in particular) are lashing out violently.

That insight, while not quite new, is reasonable enough, and revealing beyond the author’s intentions. The incident has laid bare, especially, the class tensions of urban India. In an unmistakable yet unthinking attempt at restoring the disturbed balance of power between the ghetto and the gated community, middle-class journalists armed with television cameras, blinding lights and great hairy microphones descended upon the slum where the alleged rapists lived, barged into their homes, and interviewed the cowering families about what should happen to their sons, not letting up until one obviously intimidated father agreed that hanging was the only acceptable option. It is inconceivable that power, privilege and presumption would have been deployed so contemptuously towards ‘respectable’ Delhiites in Defence Colony or Vasant Vihar.

Kapur’s analysis is also somewhat incomplete. For one, the woman on the bus does not seem to have belonged to the ‘smartly dressed’ set of middle-class Indians: her family comes from the subsistence level of the economy, although they clearly had middle-class aspirations. For another, while it is certainly true that middle-class women in Delhi and other Indian cities are vulnerable to sexual assault, the likelihood of their being raped by the proverbial rogue autorickshaw driver is considerably lower than that possibility that rural, poor, Dalit or tribal women will be sexually assaulted by a policeman, an employer, a village politician, a neighborhood bully or a husband. This is a pattern of violence that middle-class Indians are aware of, but prefer not to look at. Their adoption of the bus-rape victim as one of their own was almost accidental: a slippage within liberal citizenship, as well as a sentimentality.

Consequently, Kapur’s essay only obliquely explains the explosive public reaction to the bus rape: the unedifying and ubiquitous calls for the death penalty and castration, the near-rioting which may have cost a policeman his life, the violence unleashed on the protesters – in the name of crowd control – by an angry police force and a beleaguered administration. The Indian middle class does not typically react to rapes with such extraordinary vehemence. It has been suggested that the protests of this December are about more than this particular incident: that they form an extension of the middle-class disenchantment with the nature of the Indian state, which became evident during the Lokpal movement a couple of years ago. (‘Nothing works,’ as one angry demonstrator shouted at a journalist.) In other words, while we are ostensibly talking about a rape, we could also be talking about the municipal water supply, the mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games or cronyism in land development.

I would suggest that that analysis too, while entirely accurate, is quite inadequate. Its inadequacy is indicated by the violence of the protests – the startling rhetoric of mutilation and hanging – as well as by the gaps in what is being said about the rape of ‘India’s Amanat.’ Much like the Newtown massacre, the naked savagery of the assault has forced a traumatic surfacing into the public consciousness of the violence woven into everyday reality of Indian nationhood: the violence of gender and class, the violence of the state, the violence within families, the violence of the mob in Gujarat in 2002 (where disemboweled Muslim women were effectively disowned by the nation).

Like child-murder in American culture, that violence lies below the skin of society; it is intractable, overwhelming and intimately familiar. In it, there is an unbearable interpenetration of the ordinary and the extraordinary: the extraordinary is within the ordinary, and vice versa. Rape with a 'foreign object,' perpetrated by a gang of drunk and laughing young men, may appear to overshoot all templates of masculinity, violence and community, but it is the template: a part of the cultural mainstream. For all its horror and outrage, the Delhi incident has already passed into advertisements for Amul butter. Some years ago, when a woman was raped with a flashlight (and murdered) off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Calcutta, a defensive/dismissive Jyoti Basu remarked, 'These things happen.' ('Ei rokom to hoyei thake.')

'These things' thus have to be acknowledged as real, even commonplace; yet they cannot be spoken in the ordinary way. How do you talk about rape with a tire iron without talking about pathological gender norms? How do you talk about violence and gender without talking about the family, labor relations, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the implication of all sections of society in all of the above? It would be like discussing the bayonet rapes of Nanjing without raising broader questions about the organization of life and thought in 1930s Japan. It is easier to not talk: i.e., to talk around the particulars of yet another rape, about ‘anti-social elements’ or poor government or the death penalty for rapists. The periodic, anguished howl of the mob takes the place of what cannot be spoken by liberal citizens confronted by the limits of liberalism.



December 26, 2012

The View From Rezang La


I want to use this essay to ramble about anniversaries. Not the private kind – I feel modest – but the kind that is shared, remembered and imagined by millions of people at once. This autumn is the fiftieth anniversary of the India-China war, which the Indians lost. And almost exactly four years ago, a twenty-year-old Pakistani named Ajmal Kasab and nine of his colleagues went on a three-day shooting spree in Bombay. They killed one hundred and sixty-four people before they were overpowered by the security forces. Kasab was the only one captured alive. Last week he was hanged in a hidden corner of Pune’s Yeravda Prison, which used to be a sort of second home for Mahatma Gandhi.

The 1962 war left us with one unforgettable image, and quite a few that were quickly forgotten. Ironically, the unforgettable one is not a photograph but an act of imagination, a sort of charcoal drawing scratched by modern subjects from verbal reports that have become obscure. It is the image of the men of Charlie Company of the 13th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment, frozen in a snowfield at Rezang La, in an extraordinary tableau of death. Their heads and shoulders protrude from the whiteness of the mountain pass sixteen thousand feet above sea level; in their hands are rifles, ammunition belts, syringes and bandages. Since it is not a photograph, we are free to imagine their faces according to our ideological inclinations: heroic and defiant, contorted from the impact of bullets and bayonets, or frightened and calling for their mothers. Of the one hundred and twenty-three outgunned and outnumbered men defending Rezang La on the night of November 18, all but seven were killed in a brutal battle that ended with hand-to-hand combat as the post was overrun. The Chinese suffered five hundred casualties - or considerably more, by some accounts. The war ended the next day as the Chinese declared a ceasefire and pulled back; Rezang La was the last major action of the conflict. Two months later, at the peak of the Himalayan winter, the dead of Charlie Company were discovered by a shepherd in what had by then become a no-man’s-land between India and China. It was only later that a photographic image (below) entered the picture, and it involved a survivor of Rezang La, not the dead, posing in a predictably heroic-defiant mode.


The other image from the 1962 war that I have in mind is also actually from 1963. It is a photograph – very likely carefully staged and edited, and hence fixed in the specificity of its content, unlike the unruly ghosts of Rezang La – of the new Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, posing with suspiciously Chinese-looking children in the Deoli detention camp for enemy aliens. Shastri is smiling. The children are smiling. The other adults are smiling. The detention camp might as well be a holiday camp. It was a holiday camp that lasted nearly two decades, safely removed from public consciousness. Its memory survived as a sort of rumor until the unpredictable forces of the anniversary business washed it up on the pages of The Hindu, unnerving the readers of even that notoriously leftist newspaper.


1962 occupies a peculiar place in what might be considered ‘the Indian memory’: simultaneously livid and empty. Most Indians remember nothing at all: the number means nothing to them as a date or an event. I doubt very much that a Bihari sharecropper or even a Calcutta cabbie knows or cares about what happened in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh (then the North-East Frontier Agency) that fall, when the Indian Army disintegrated in the thin air of the mountains, and Nehru appeared to say goodbye to the people of Assam. But for the Indian middle class, the episode left a scar – consisting mostly of shame – that has endured remarkably well.

That remembrance of a lost war, which has increasingly acquired an obsessive quality, is not inherently odd. Memories of defeat are integral to European nationalisms, for instance. But in the Indian case, the nationalist classes were not themselves present on the battlefield in any significant numbers, apart from the officers. Battles like Rezang La, Walong and Thagla Ridge were fought by country boys with give-away names like Ram Kumar: peasants from the hills of Kumaon, Garhwal and Darjeeling who had undoubtedly been socialized into a kind of national consciousness by the army, but who were nevertheless quite distinct from the classes that owned the dominant discourses of Indian nationhood, and that were most traumatized by the outcome of the war. The scarred memory of 1962 is thus partly a false or borrowed trauma, acquired as middle-class nationalists appropriated subalterns as their historical cricket team. But partly, it is a trauma in the discourse itself: a nearly unbearable blemish in the narrative of an Asian power emerging from colonial rule to claim its place in the sun. And as the middle class has expanded sideways and downwards, the scar has expanded as well, so that 1962 has become a defining moment of sorts in the trajectory of what it means to be Indian. It has to do with feeling ashamed, which is a fate common to all colonized people.

So now that the Golden Jubilee of the war has come around, more people than ever are conjuring up the ghosts of Rezang La, who crowd out the larger picture of disgrace: the political and strategic mistakes, the total collapse (in the NEFA) of the fabled Red Eagle Division that stopped the Germans and Italians in North Africa twenty years before, the goodbye to Assam, and mental images of soldiers without winter clothes and snow boots limping wearily down the mountain.

 My own language is suspect, and it should be. Whose ‘fable’ was the Red Eagle Division? A British-colonial fable, for the most part, and one that gives away the discomfort at the heart of Indian nationhood: its fables are not necessarily its own. Rezang La is fabulous precisely because it contains a trace of Thermopylae, an echo of Verdun (Ils ne passeront pas!), and snatches of Tennyson. Even when we are dealing with what is ostensibly our ‘own’ history, the ground beneath our feet is not reliably Indian, and that injects a note of hysteria into the narrative. Nevertheless, a middle class that can adopt peasant soldiers as its cricket team can also adopt European mythologies as the stuff of its autobiography, and these fables of Red Eagles and Greeks now have an authentic national clientele that is embarrassed by the slide from El Alamein to NEFA, when there should have been an ascent. People are surprised, and even irate, that the Chinese do not seem to remember the war or care about having won, when Indians care so much about having lost. (Very inscrutable, those Chinese.) The questions that, for forty-odd years, concerned only military and diplomatic historians, are now eagerly dissected by a wider body of netizens: who started it, who was right, was Nehru na├»ve, could air power have made a difference, and most importantly, are we still so shameful/shameless?

The answers that are produced in the course of these new conversations rarely challenge conventional wisdom. There is still a great thirst for scapegoats and a lingering adherence to the stabbed-in-the-back theory. Some new facets have emerged nevertheless: the rehabilitation of the army, for example. The unedifying image of unshod stragglers is rapidly being replaced by the tableau on Rezang La. Even the old Lee Enfield 303 rifle, once mocked as a disastrously obsolete weapon, is now displayed honorably. The landscape of the war zone, especially Ladakh, has been repackaged with the aid of Bollywood. The surreal beauty of Pangong Tso, the lake where the ceasefire took hold, is now known to Indian tourists, thanks to films like Three Idiots (which ends on the lakeshore for no reason at all). I’ve been there myself: it really is very nice.


As the old war has been popularized by (and for) a new public, some conclusions have actually become inadmissible. There is a reluctance, for instance, consider the likelihood that the Indian debacle in the war was produced not by Nehru or General Kaul or Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith or even Defence Minister Krishna Menon, but by the immaturity of political, bureaucratic and military establishments that were only fifteen years removed from independence, utterly inexperienced, and clueless about the organizational requirements of a major war. The Chinese, on the other hand, had fought a long war against Japan, a civil war, and a war against the United States in Korea; the PRC was in that sense a highly militarized state. Conferring the ‘Field Marshall’ rank on an Indian general or two does not make good that immense imbalance of competence, although it does, of course, satisfy certain other hungers of the colonized. Nehru came close to admitting the problem when he mumbled that ‘we’ – a very ambiguous pronoun – had been ‘somewhat amateurish,’ but nobody wants to unpack that with undue care. It’s too shameful, and it threatens to overflow a few bad men into the inadequate modernity of the larger society.

My point is that the recent focus on Rezang La as an event and an image is not only part of a make-over of the 1962 war, but a reactionary make-over of Indian nationhood: a modern nation of image-consumers, a nation stabbed in the back by incompetent politicians and inscrutable Chinese, a nation of back-stabbed heroes in recognizably heroic tableaux, a nation where citizens are also soldiers and soldiers are citizens, a nation without paralyzing gaps between the state and the community. In this expanded national-public context, there is no easy fit for the photograph of Shastri at the Deoli detention camp. So certain kinds of questions are not asked: what possessed the Indian government to treat tens of thousands of Chinese-Indians as enemy aliens during the war, the place of race in Indian identity, the place of detention camps in Indian democracy, questions of acknowledgment, apology and reparation. It is not asked why Shastri was visiting a detention camp a year after the war, what he was smiling about, what the children were smiling about, and whether he and the children were chatting in Hindi or Chinese. (I assume it was the former, but photographs are mercifully silent about such awkward details.)

When war broke out in October of 1962, tens of thousands of civilians of Chinese ancestry were rounded up in India. The precise number is still unclear, but may emerge yet as historians ride the anniversary wave. Some were immigrants, some were Indian-born, some ran ‘ethnic businesses’ in Calcutta, others were well on their way to being absorbed into the ethnic mix of the Indian northeast. Many were deported to China, which could be a foreign country to them. Others went to camps like Deoli (near Kota, in Rajasthan), which had once been a site of inland penal transportation for Indians who had offended the Raj. Others were subjected to a humiliating regime of registrations, permits and police harassment. When people emerged from this bureaucratic no-man’s-land years later, they found that their homes and businesses had vanished into the opportunistic realm of ‘enemy property.’ There was never any apology or acknowledgment of wrong-doing, let alone reparations, from the government.

The Chinese-Indians were not charged with any offence, of course, since their offence – race – was clearly in evidence. Or was it? This is where the connections between race, ethnicity and citizenship begin to reveal their inherent irrationalities. Were the assimilated Chinese of Assam Chinese or Assamese? Could a policeman or a bureaucrat tell the difference without the help of foreign-sounding names and family histories? What about locally born children, who spoke the vernacular? If the Assamese of Chinese ancestry were enemy aliens on account of race, determined on the basis of how they looked to others, how safe were other Assamese? Are Bengalis, many of whom ‘look Assamese,’ more secure in their Indianness when they go along with the internment of people who ‘look Chinese’? If you follow this line of interrogation, you would have to stand sheepishly beside the prime minister and say goodbye to Assam after all. You might also have an epiphany about the predicament of ‘chinkies’ from the northeast who work as waiters in Chinese restaurants in every Indian city: stand-in aliens, whose apparent fitness for the role inevitably erodes their status as Indians. The community and the state drift apart like icebergs, necessitating that Garhwali peasants be counted as stand-ins for the urban middle class.

There are several direct precedents for the Indian government’s move to intern the ‘Chinese’ in 1962, the most direct of which is probably the colonial government’s internment of Germans (including, ironically, Jews) during the Second World War. But the most obvious parallel is the Japanese experience in America in the 1940s, and it is useful to compare the two episodes briefly. Apart from the similar calculations of race and nationality, there is the shared matter of shame. In both situations, those who were rounded up for internment felt deeply ashamed, and in the process, seemed to liberate their captors from the need for shame. Not only had they been humiliated before their children, neighbors and compatriots, they had been violated by their own government in a manner that is analogous to rape within the family. Because there was no space left for speech, and no community left for conversation, it brought an extended silence that lasted, in America, until the emergence of the Nisei writers. In India, the silence has been more persistent, enforced – or at any rate, maintained – by a stifling consensus between the victims, the perpetrators and the larger community of citizens.

There are, I think, several reasons why. Firstly, the US won its war; India lost its. Thus, in the Indian situation, the shame of defeat in Ladakh and NEFA was compensated by the authority involved in the identification and internment of the Chinese in Calcutta and Gauhati. Without an actual victory to provide reassurance, there was no question of conceding the fraudulent victory ritual where you point the guns and they huddle behind barbed wire fences.

Secondly, the discourse of race is vastly different in India and the United States. The idea of multi-racial citizenship, which has taken hold (however precariously) in America since the 1960s has no real counterpart in India, where religion, rather than race, remains at the heart of debates about insiders and outsiders. On race, among the classes that care about things like citizenship, there is a complacent agreement about what an Indian looks like, and the concept of a Chinese-Indian (or a Naga or Manipuri, for that matter) remains exotic. That agreement was cemented in the early twentieth century by social scientists like Benoy Sarkar, who took the concept of an ‘Indian race’ quite seriously (although Sarkar, with one eye on Muslims, preferred the term ‘Hindu race’), and it has not been disturbed significantly by the inclusion of the northeastern states in the Republic. Sarkar – who was both an Indian nationalist and a cosmopolitan Asian – admired China, but it was axiomatic to him that chinkies were not Indians.

The third reason is an extension of the second. The range of public opinion in India is, in some contexts, much narrower than in the US. This is not to deny the obvious: there is a much stronger hegemonic agreement in America about what constitutes a ‘normal’ arrangement of power and wealth in society. The Indian political arena is far more diverse in its convictions and affiliations. But if we narrow the field to include only the ‘proper citizens,’ i.e., the recognizably modern public, the picture changes quite dramatically. There is, in the United States, an established and reasonably flourishing tradition of bourgeois dissent, directed not so much against the state as against the mainstream of discourse. The mainstream is depressingly racist and militarist; nevertheless, on any discussion of a ‘contentious’ issue – drone attacks, support for Israel, abortion, torture, detention without trial, nuclear policy, the death penalty – opposing opinions are ubiquitous, and the existence of a policy does not indicate the closure of debate. Indian public debate, in comparison, is severely attenuated by consensus, give or take Arundhati Roy. It is as if when it comes to the state, the Indian middle class is largely in agreement as to what is right and proper, and what is most right and proper is the identification of the state with the community. So what happened to the Chinese-Indians – who are racial outsiders to the community – is not especially troubling, because all the state has done is underline the proper boundaries of the community.

Because the state is also the major agent of violence in a modern society, this emaciation of public opinion, in conjunction with the simultaneous widening of the imagined circle of racialized citizenship and its tightening to exclude certain others (‘we are all Kumaonis, but we are not chinkies’), is inevitably a moral problem. This brings me to the hanging of Ajmal Kasab. Unlike most terror suspects who have attracted American attention since 2001, Kasab got a trial, with standard procedures of representation, evidence and conviction. He was not subjected to extraordinary laws or constitutional loopholes, or even tortured. In that regard, his treatment by the Indian state was quite exemplary. But already in the early stages of his captivity, there were troubling signs, such as the virulence with which public figures and even legal associations threatened the few lawyers who came forward to defend him. For all its propriety, Kasab’s trial was always a hair’s breadth removed from the respectable mob. Inevitably, irregularities crept in, climaxing in the bizarre secrecy and haste with which he was hanged, without being informed that he had one further avenue of appeal. The government, battered by corruption scandals and a disintegrating coalition, needed the popularity of a popular execution.

The conviction and the death sentence were never in doubt, of course. The evidence was too overwhelming, and it contained irrefutable images: CCTV footage of Kasab with his black T-shirt and automatic rifle (not a Lee Enfield), firing into the crowd at the railway station.


Indian courts are much less trigger-happy than their American counterparts and the death penalty is indeed awarded quite rarely, but in Kasab’s case it was probably a foregone conclusion. The man was a cold-blooded killer, and besides, the mob wanted it. In the process, quite a few questions did not get asked. Whose scapegoat was this peasant who – like other peasants – morphed into a national icon? What did he think he was doing? Was this village boy with no education and no evident political beliefs, who was prone to giggling in the courtroom and throwing unpredictable little tantrums, mentally fit for capital punishment? Why should Kasab’s death be celebrated even as Bal Thackeray’s death was mourned, even though old Bal arguably terrorized more people over a much longer time, and did far greater damage to the rule of law in the country? Is hanging a terrorist really likely to deter men who commence their missions expecting to die? What issues are involved in any capital-punishment case: not only the legal and ethical issues of class, education, religion and process, but also the moral issues of error and irreversibility, and the brutality of keeping a man alive for four years like a pet and then suddenly murdering him like a sacrificial animal? These things simply do not exist in the mainstream of Indian public discourse, because civil society, in the process of expanding, has taken on the contours and qualities of the mob, which loudly asserts its identification with the state but is totally unconcerned with the discursive niceties of liberalism. Economic growth works in unexpected ways.

The mob took center stage after the execution, indulging in a frenzy of fireworks, cheering and handing out sweets. The demon is dead, have a kalakand. Anna Hazare, that great ‘Gandhian,’ expressed his regret that Kasab had not been hanged in public, so that the carnival of bloodlust and citizenship could have been more intense and unmediated. (In this, Hazare was quite close to the outright fascists like Thackeray, who had complained about Kasab getting a trial at all.) Others, more somber but no less vulgar, held religious services for Kasab’s victims. There was much public mourning of policemen and soldiers who had been killed in the Bombay incident, although the great majority of those who died were civilians. The ‘public’ element is central to the point that I am making. Noting the decline of public executions in early modern Europe, Foucault suggested that the unruly presence of the mob threatened to open up a gap between the state and the community that was unacceptable to the regime. That dynamic is, I think, reversed in episodes of fascism: the participation or even presence of the mob in state violence eliminates any gap that might otherwise exist. Those who were disturbed by the whole tamasha of Kasab’s hanging were almost entirely marginal to this spontaneous enactment of the unity of state and community.

None of this is exotic. Celebrations and the rhetoric of ‘closure for victims’ families’ are part and parcel of capital punishment in America. The word ‘closure,’ now being tossed about by observers of Kasab’s death, is borrowed directly from the American lexicon of psychotherapy and semi-public executions. And certainly the killing of bin Laden was greeted in America with a similar near-unanimous satisfaction. There is nevertheless a difference. Osama bin Laden was dealt with outside the legal structure. His death was an extralegal (even illegal) killing, and the public delight that followed was accordingly a kind of delinquent excess. The carnival and the justice system maintained a precarious separateness. This separateness has its own pathologies, but those are the pathologies of the state of exception.  In Kasab’s case, the regular process of governance – not a state of exception – merged with the carnival in a manner that was highly corrosive of liberal political culture, not to mention ghoulish. It came with its own photographic image: Kasab’s corpse. The image of a dead twenty-five-year-old will, apparently, bring closure, bind the community and restore the outraged state. It was a depressing revelation of moral crudity at the center of the norm, and not just in the shadow of the norm.

This essay has gone on much longer than I had intended and is becoming a disaster, so I will bring it to a close. The spectacle of Kasab’s execution was fundamentally shameless and indecent, nearly on the same scale as the shamelessness and indecency of Lal Bahadur Shastri – by all accounts a very decent man – posing with Chinese-Indian children in a detention camp, instead of closing the camp and apologizing. (Not even FDR, a man more heavily burdened by modern ideologies of race, posed with the Japanese in Manzanar.) But Shastri, having assumed office soon after a lost war, was the leader of a shamed community. Feeling ashamed is, amazingly, highly compatible with being shameless. The shamed/shameless community wraps itself in the state. This is true even for the victims of the state: among the interned Japanese Americans, the No-No Boys (who rejected the overtures of military recruiters) were far outnumbered by those who joined the 442nd and 100th Regimental Combat Teams and fought for the very community that had declared them aliens. For the victimizers, of course, there is even less daylight between the self, the community and the state, because they too perceive themselves to be victims. (We were colonized, we were stabbed in the back, we lost the war.) I am reminded of a point Ronald Inden made years ago: communities that emerge from colonialism bury themselves in the state because the state represents not the community, but the political agency that was taken away by colonialism. That agency, institutionalized and reclaimed, becomes the basis for the new community of citizens.

But there is inevitably a heavy price to pay. This price is partly aesthetic: a matter of images.  Sometimes the image is deceptive. What looks to be Chinese could be Assamese, or even Bengali. And the frozen tableau of Rezang La is, on the surface, quite beautiful. (Who says there’s no tragedy in India? We’re not savages.) But it is nevertheless a fake, bordering on kitsch. I am not saying that the battle fought at Rezang La in November 1962 was a fake, or that the soldiers (Indian and Chinese) who died were not admirable, or that what the shepherd found in January was unreal. I am saying that the image of that battle, and the reproduction of what the shepherd saw, has become increasingly fraudulent, because it expands public awareness of the 1962 war only to cover up the truth of the image of Shastri and the interned children. And partly, the price is moral and political, establishing the normalcy of a political community that flirts constantly with fascism, because morbid-heroic imagery and carnivals of communal identity take up all the public space, placing certain kinds of discussion out of bounds.

November 24, 2012

The Art of Invisibility


Introductory remarks to panel on "Cinema and the National-Security State" (Representing South Asia on Film series of screenings and talks, Queens College, November 8, 2012)


Some of you might recall that immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the artist Damien Hirst both remarked that the attack was nothing less than a spectacular work of art. Stockhausen and Hirst were quickly condemned. Some of the condemnation seems justified, since the remarks came across as callous, to put it mildly. But it can also be pointed out that seeing art in disasters, crimes and atrocities is a very large part of our culture. If that sensibility did not exist, and if it did not enjoy a pretty broad public acceptance, the war movie as we know it would not exist. TV shows like 24 and Homeland would not exist.

The modern state, as George Orwell suggested sixty years ago, is inseparable from anxieties about security and fantasies of violence: images of mushroom clouds, images of cruise missiles being launched from warships. These anxieties and fantasies lend themselves extremely well to art. It is, I think, fair to say that without that art – the war movie, the TV show about terrorism, the photograph of the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima, the movie about that photograph – our culture and our state would both have to be reimagined. These are the aesthetics of citizenship, i.e., the prettiness or the majesty of the relationship between the individual and the state. Even the September 11 event, in spite of the criticism of Stockhausen and Hirst, was almost immediately treated as art, not just by avant-garde composers and provocative artists, but also by photographers, illustrators and editors who looked for the most dramatic angles and the most moving montages, and by the citizens who found the images striking.

But the aesthetics of citizenship is not a simple structure, because citizenship is constituted by a series of power relationships or inequalities. Not only is the individual not equal to the state, not all individuals are equally unequal. Here, we can make a crude but useful generalization. Mainstream or popular art, like commercial cinema, either takes the side of the state over the individual when there is a conflict, or refuses to acknowledge that there is a conflict. In this vision, the state is the extension, the representative and the absorber of the individual. Through policemen, or soldiers, or CIA agents, it thinks, decides and acts. And that agency is not only legitimate, it has aesthetic substance, which enhances the legitimacy.

Then there is the art of how the state acts upon the individual. This can, of course, be characterized in various ways: resistance art, guerrilla art, non-commercial, non-mainstream, non-monumental, and so on. I think, however, that a more useful characterization is to see it as the art of impotence, or of passivity. This is not to say that it is art without agency: obviously, the act of making a film, any film, is a form of agency. But the kind of cinema that I am talking about, and that we are going to be looking at this evening, comes out of a particular ideological space within the modern state where agency is fraught with difficulties. I want to explain this very briefly with reference to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

In two books that he wrote on either side of September 11, Agamben argued that at the heart of the modern, democratic state is a moral and constitutional black hole, which he called a state of exception. The state of exception is a situation in which what is abnormal – illegal, unethical, impermissible – becomes the norm, and the lines between legality and illegality become blurred. The constitution effectively suspends itself, at least in some contexts. You can think of it as a permanent state of emergency, in which the specifics of the emergency and the specifics of constitutionality are both forgotten. You can also think of it as a particular institution, such as a concentration camp or a CIA ‘black site,’ or a legal regime like the Patriot Act in America and the Prevention of Terrorism Act in India. The name of each of those laws, I want you to notice, is deliberately bland and blank, showing you nothing except complacence, anxiety and a citizenship that calls for its own renunciation. It functions very much like a generic image of a waving flag, or a burning skyscraper against a hard blue sky. It’s a rhetorical technique that Norman Mailer called ‘Bureaucratic Technologese’: an inscrutable, vanilla language that makes the violence of the state invisible.

For the person caught in a state of exception, Agamben suggests a name: Homo Sacer, which translates roughly as ‘bare man,’ or ‘empty man.’ Homo Sacer is a person, or a demographic, that has absolutely no rights. He is included in the body politic by virtue of being excluded. His place in the law is that he has no legal status. He cannot be killed through the legal or constitutional process, but he can nevertheless be killed at any time, by anyone, without it constituting murder.

The most obvious example of modern Homo Sacer in a state of exception, Agamben suggested, was the Jew in Nazi Germany. But his point is that we do not need such dramatic examples for the model to work. In any case, extreme examples can be misleading, because they suggest that the problem is far away and rare, when in fact it is ubiquitous. The commonest Homo Sacer, Agamben wrote, are the inmates of detention camps for illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, which can be as small as a cell tucked away in a corner of an international airport, or as large as the French facility at Sangatte, which was closed down a few years ago. It can be as remote as Guantanamo and Bagram, and as nearby as New York City itself.

These camps are not prisons, Agamben reminded us. This is a crucial distinction in the history of the modern world. Michel Foucault argued, back in the 1970s, that the prison is the defining institution and metaphor of modern society. But Agamben argued that the detention camp has surpassed the prison in its utility as a model. Prisoners have rights, they have access to lawyers and appeals, they have an existence in the public record, they have been through a constitutional process of trial and conviction, and their sentences are definite (although this is changing in the era of sex-offender registries and similar systems of information-based control and permanent probation). Camp inmates do not have those things. The detention camp is a place with rules but no rights, and it exists within a constitutional state but the constitution does not exist within it. These dynamics make it the perfect example of a state of exception.

After September 11, America acquired a more or less new archipelago of states of exception, and a new population of Homo Sacer. These are for the most part Muslims, although non-Muslims have not been immune. They are mostly non-citizens: immigrants, foreign students, people on work visas, people who have been kidnapped overseas by the military or the CIA. But they also include US citizens, and the citizens of countries that are allied to the United States. They include scientists, office managers, and people who looked suspicious to a flight attendant or a fellow passenger on a plane. These are people who are included in America by virtue of their exclusion from the constitutional protections of citizenship, and simultaneously, by their subjection to the power of the state.

It is not surprising that South Asians have been at the very heart of this particular state of exception. This is not only because of the American military adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also because of the large population of South Asian Muslims in America, and because even those that are not Muslim seem to fit the profile. (It is, I think, a remarkable phenomenon that the image of the ‘terrorist’ in America has shifted eastwards from the Arab in the 1980s, to the Pakistani and even the Bangladeshi in the present day.)

The documentary films that we are showing you today reflect the experiences of these South Asians, and they were made by a group of artists and activists, the Visible Collective, that includes quite a few South Asians. In that double sense, they are the art of passivity as well as of agency: art that comes from the intersection between a metaphorical detention camp that captures us all, and the actual camp that captures some but not others. The film-makers may disagree with that characterization, but I’ll leave it to Uzma Rizvi (of the Pratt Institute) and Prerana Reddy (of the Queens Museum of Art) to address that issue, if they choose.

I want to make a couple of quick points first, before I shut up. One has to do with the South Asian diaspora in America. And this point is that there is really no such thing as the South Asian diaspora. There are many South Asian diasporas. They are separate by class, by education, by country of origin, by language, by religion, and very importantly, by legal status. By the terms of my analysis, they can be divided into two broad groups: the visible and the invisible. The visible are people like me, and like Uzma and Prerana. We have some money, some social status, American passports, command of the English language, acid tongues, colleagues who can and will stand up for us when the acidity gets us into trouble.

The invisible are the cab drivers and waiters, who typically remain unseen by us even when they are in plain sight. They see themselves, of course, but their sight is unconnected to the political power that makes the difference between rules and rights. If they were to earnestly declare at the airport, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,’ nobody would understand their accent and the consequences would be unpleasant. So they remain invisible when they are secretly approached and intimidated by the NYPD or the FBI, and when they disappear into a detention site without a charge or a trial, not knowing when they will reemerge, and under what conditions. What the visible group sometimes attempts to do, as Visible Collective has tried to do, is recover these people from invisibility, even if it is for the seven or eight minutes of a short film. The short film format is particularly appropriate, I think, because it constitutes an aesthetic of anti-monumentality, doing without grand spectacles, slow-motion video montages, and even pretty pictures. The stripped-down starkness that we see in these films is the aesthetic of Homo Sacer, glimpsed from the perimeter of the camp.

My other point – the last one, I promise – is that the visible people, the ones who are not in the camp, are in fact within the orbit of the camp. Sometimes even Imran Khan and Shah Rukh Khan must explain that they are not terrorists. The state of exception is not just a concrete box or a razor-wire fence for people without passports and credit cards. The camp, as I said before, is also a metaphor: a fate that can befall anyone, including citizens and film-makers and the visible, including people who are not South Asian or Muslim, or even brown. The shadow of Homo Sacer – the predicament of being excluded from citizenship – falls on all citizens of the modern state. 

As promised, I will now shut up. We will be showing you four short films, imbedded in the talks by Uzma and Prenana. Following that we can have a discussion with the audience. 



The films shown are:


FEAR OF FLYING: http://vimeo.com/24910890 
LINGERING TWENTY: http://vimeo.com/39513929 
INVISIBLE MAN: http://vimeo.com/39473380 
PATRIOT STORY: http://vimeo.com/39450303