Serbia With Nukes

In an essay published in Haaretz in 2006, Tony Judt referred to Israel as ‘Serbia with nukes.’ The phrase was not his own; he was citing an unnamed person, who was himself adapting Helmut Schmidt's dismissive description of the Soviet Union (‘Upper Volta with nukes’). But Judt was not being random or flippant in his choice of analogies. A decade after the war in what used to be Yugoslavia, Serbia still carried a stench. It was not just the stench of massacred civilians, rape camps and ethnic cleansing, but also of a particular kind of nationhood: one saturated with aggression and self-pity.  Identified (not least by themselves) with Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, Serbs appeared obsessed with wrongs – old and new – suffered at the hands of outsiders and internal enemies, convinced that nobody understood their insecurity in their own homeland, and driven by a monstrous, paranoid desire for dominance. It warped them to the extent that they were no longer recognizable as civilized, let alone liberal and democratic in the post-Cold-War European self-image. They were, moreover, not only driven by a sense of their own importance (to Europe and civilization), but actually not much more than a small tribe of provincials. That Serbs themselves could acknowledge their pathology is evident in Srdan Spasojevic’s wryly titled A Serbian Film, which was promptly banned all over the world for its unflinching depiction of a savage dystopia.

When Judt suggested that Israel was ‘Serbia with nukes,’ in the aftermath of brutal invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, he thus pointed to a mode of civic identity and political functioning that is both horrifying and laughable: the mode of an unbalanced child with deadly weapons, a danger to itself as well to those around it. Watching events in India unfold over the past few days, I was reminded of Judt’s use of the phrase, and wondered if it does not describe India also. There too, a majority that is undeniably in command of every sector of social, political and economic life is obsessed with what it calls the ‘appeasement’ of minorities. There too, monstrous things have happened, not just once in a while but as a matter of course. There too, world-power pretensions are simultaneously desperate and ludicrous, because of the nationalist conviction that the enemies that matter most (‘anti-national elements’) are within its borders. The nationalist is, in other words, unable to pull his head out of his ass: his vision of the world is limited by his uncontrollable desire for revenge against what is within his own body. Even the obsession with Pakistan is merely the displacement of an internal enmity to a location just beyond an unconvincing border.

It is useful to look at the JNU crisis in the light – or rather, pitch darkness – of this rectal nationhood. In some ways, what has happened at JNU must be welcomed: the attacks on students by police and patriotic mobs, and the statements by various politicians affiliated with the government, have clarified things. When sedition laws are deployed against student politicians making speeches on campus, a defendant in a courtroom is assaulted by goons (who are also lawyers!) in front of the police not once but twice, and cabinet ministers declare that “the nation can never tolerate insults to Mother India,” we should have no trouble using the word ‘fascism.’ Suddenly, ordinary Indians – not just cranky academics – are using it, and even some who voted for the BJP in the last election are dismayed. References to Germany in the 1930s are being bandied about more or less nakedly in the Indian press, to say nothing of the network of diasporic commentators and users of social media. We need only be a little surprised that it took people so long to follow the cranky academics and pseudo-secular bleeding hearts, who began fretting after the 2014 election.

The fascist attacks on JNU are welcome also because they are not really about JNU, or even about any particular principle associated with that university. They are, rather, about very general ideas of the nature of the state, the content of nationhood and the meaning of dissent. It happened at JNU, but it could have just as easily have happened at another university, although in that case, the national anguish would probably have been more muted. But because the arrest and beating of a student for giving a mildly ‘anti-national’ speech happened at an institution that has long prized its elite status, large numbers of Indians have been moved to identity with the poor jholawalas. This, as I said, is a good thing, because if decent, middle-class, Hindu citizens will not take to the streets or use the f-word when pregnant Muslim women are cut open and fetuses ripped out, men are lynched for having the wrong kind of meat in the fridge, and families are herded into ghetto-like camps because their homes have gone up in flames, at least they will march when the same forces come after smart, smartly dressed members of the ‘majority community.’ Something extraordinary is happening in the country, the Supreme Court opined yesterday. Indeed, but it did not start at JNU. At most, it can be said that the JNU incident alerted the majority that it too can be cast in the role of the ‘anti-national element.’ It produced an insight – and such insights are rare for national majorities – that JNU and Naroda Patiya are on the same continuum. It is that insight that is extraordinary. And because it is difficult to bear, there is already the impulse to separate the predicament of the jholawalas from the predicament of the circumcised. While the widespread impulse of Indian liberals and their foreign allies to 'stand in solidarity' with JNU is laudable, the jholawalas need our solidarity much less than do the katuas. If the dignity of the latter was assured, the former would have no trouble.

It is comforting, no doubt, to rally around ‘the Constitution’ in extraordinary times, or around ‘the republic,’ as many alarmed Indians have done in the past week. This is understandable; one needs handles to gain ideological traction. But the republic is not some pristine principle, and the Indian Constitution, like any constitution, is a flawed political product. Fetishizing them will take us only so far. The Constitution and the republic have not prevented gross abuses of power in the past, from police violence against the poor, Dalits and minorities, through brutal counterinsurgency tactics in remote corners of the map, to stifled speech at every turn. They have not prevented rampant discrimination in housing and employment, or diverted polite, university-educated, middle-class citizens from their smug conversations about ‘those people.’ (Most fascists are perfectly nice.) The Sangh Parivar did not invent all this, and people have not always taken to the streets (or Facebook) in protest. While some of those abuses are in the nature of the modern state, others are specifically rooted in the Indian state, which has attempted from the outset to deploy democracy without liberalism. It is only now, when the outright fascists are in power, that the implications of that formula have come home to roost, and citizens who have been at best wishy-washy about liberal principles are reaching for the Constitution. But it may very well be necessary to take a closer look at the Constitution itself – and at the principles to which the citizen is willing to commit – before ‘the republic’ can provide adequate protection against commonplace episodes of the extraordinary.

There is, in addition, a dire need to look again at the purposes of Indian nationhood. That nationhood needs a purpose will, of course, appear nonsensical to some: to the dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, especially on the political right, nationhood simply is. It creates a state to protect its boundaries, and it regards dissent as a challenge to its very existence. That is the starting point of Serbia-with-nukes. Indian nationhood, however, has historically had a romantic component that is intertwined with the idea of justice: the idea that underlying the miraculous historical convergence of people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Punjab to Assam, is the objective of doing ‘the right thing,’ and not just for yourself. The right thing could be derived from the European Enlightenment or from sources closer to home, but the principle guided a wide range of ideologues: Nehru, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Rabindranath and even Bose, who was not a democrat. The imperative of justice, and not just self-interest, produced something new in the form of a national identity, a national space, and a national state. That, really, is the only defensible reason to be a nationalist. Otherwise there is no point in being so absurdly attached to arbitrary borders assembled by a regime that everybody recognizes as illegitimate: the British-Indian colonial state. Nor is there any point in arresting, beating and hanging those who question the map.

India is not Serbia or Israel, and not just because it is much bigger in every way. But there has emerged in India a tribe of Serbs, who appear superficially to be two different tribes. One is rustic, boorish, clad in saffron bandannas or khaki shorts, highly sensitive to 'insults to the nation,' and imbued with a predilection for murder and rape. The other is suave, English-speaking (with the right private-school accent), well-shod, and clad in neatly ironed shirts. They do not, as a general rule, murder or rape. But because they share the vision of a nationhood that is forever threatened by ‘anti-nationals,’ and that has no purpose except revenge and dominance, they give their approval to the murderers and rapists, and show themselves to be provincials of the worst sort. They are a menace to their neighbors, compatriots and themselves, and no one is more responsible for the farcical reality of a twenty-first-century nation-state that relies on mob violence to reassure itself of its permanence, continues to debate whether Shivaji was greater than Aurangzeb, and uses sedition laws against those who give the wrong answer.

February 19, 2016

Lynch-mob nation

In the cosmopolitan southern city of Bangalore this week, a Tanzanian woman was dragged out of a car, beaten, partially stripped, and ‘paraded’ by a mob. Her assailants, it seems, were angry about an unrelated accident, in which a Sudanese student had hit and killed a pedestrian. The details are appalling: when the young Tanzanian tried to escape her tormentors by jumping on a bus, the passengers threw her back to the crowd, and when she tried to file a report with the police, she was sneeringly told to produce the Sudanese man (whom she did not know) first. The scrap of comfort that can be gleaned here is that one bystander had stepped forward to help the woman, only to beaten mercilessly by the mob. But there has also been some anguish about ‘what we have become’: how racist, how lawless, and so on. Even the contributors to the comments sections in the mainstream press have recoiled, in the equivalent of an embarrassed crowd. Since lynching and mob violence are neither new nor rare in the modern Indian experience, however, it is worth asking whether the assumption that there has been a change for the worse – a moral and civic decline – is actually justified, and when lynching becomes commonplace.
For those familiar with Indian public life and its patterns of violence, what happened to the Tanzanian woman is almost entirely familiar, and not just because of the rage that lurks below the surface of relations between the car-borne and the pedestrian. The particulars of the Bangalore incident are easily recognizable as the idiom of violence against low-caste women in rural areas and provincial towns, and even urban women on ‘festive’ occasions. In a patriarchal society, there is nothing like sexual humiliation and terror to enforce the intertwined hierarchies of caste, class and gender. That enforcement is typically abetted by the police, who are after all there to maintain ‘order’ in every sense of the word.
The spectacle of the violent crowd – engaged either in a pogrom against a ‘community’ or in the lynching of a stray victim – should not surprise Indians. The rioting mob has been a part of public affairs in independent India from the outset, acting out a rogue history that resists historicizing and frustrates those whose preferred national narrative is one of warring states. It might be argued that such mob action is the sign of a ramshackle modernity in which the state is weak both ideologically and structurally: it has no monopoly on either the legitimacy or the means of violence.  Every once in a while, the liberal pretensions of the republic are exposed as irrelevant and alien, and the citizenry reverts to its primal state.
That argument is not altogether without merit; the ideological gulf between the crowd and the state in India can hardly be denied, although it can be romanticized by those who see the subaltern crowd as the repository of an alternative and superior civic virtue. It may, however, be more accurate to say that the problem is not the gap between the crowd and the state, but the overlap. Here, I want to draw attention to two other histories of chronic mob violence: anti-black terror in the United States between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-Jewish terror in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The American example is overtly noticeable to those who were shocked by the attack on the Tanzanian woman, because of the shared element of violence against those identified as ‘black.’  That connection, however, is a red herring. Anti-black racism is not a uniform or universal phenomenon; its roots and rationales vary from one historical setting to another. American bigotry is only tenuously related to Indian contempt for the dark-skinned. The more interesting overlap has to do with the relationship between the crowd, the state and the pariah. The epidemic of lynching which began in the American South even before the Reconstruction had ended was not just about reestablishing white supremacy and intimidating the generation of blacks who had grown up after the Civil War. It was also about creating rituals that would demarcate the boundaries and content of blackness – articulated as spatial segregation, sexual containment, disenfranchisement and the condition of terror itself – at a moment when slavery no longer supplied the parameters. Mob violence clarified and policed the outcaste status of people who were otherwise entitled to the permissions of freedom and citizenship. At the same time, it generated for Southern whites a method of defiance, not only against the federal government and the Republican Party but also against republican principles of American identity, recovering from it the narrower ideology of white democracy that had its roots in Andrew Jackson’s nation even more than the Confederacy. Lynching thus became the basis of a local governance that was contextually at odds with the national government: a rift in the state, in which the crowd established a semi-legitimate Southern shadow-state. It could be tolerated by the national state, not only because tolerance was politically expedient following the rehabilitation of the Democratic Party, but because it was consistent with the delinquent side of American praxis. Frontiers and colonial warfare came with their own rituals of racial violence. Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist and frontiersman, could thus both disdain and accept the lynch-mob politics of the South.
In the German case, that distance between the legitimate and illegitimate states was eventually closed. After 1933 but well before the Wannsee Conference, the mob and the state had become interchangeable, in the sense that each spoke and acted in the name of the other, and also provided cover for each other. Mob violence, as in Kristallnacht, functioned as a surrogate for state violence. Once the Final Solution began, the mob was fully absorbed by the state and lost its visibility as an autonomous entity, i.e., as a mob. In each these aspects – the emergence of the mob as a proxy of the state, and the redundancy of the mob – Germany showcased an arrangement of power that is fascist in the first instance, and fascist as well as totalitarian in the second. Lynching in the American South, in contrast, was ‘merely’ a form of productive terror. Whereas the state-mob in Germany produced the Jew and the Gypsy as vermin (or, as Agamben would have it, as beings removed from the domain of legality and illegality), seeking ultimately to dissolve the ghetto and empty the camp, Klan terror produced the Negro as a subordinated minority, to be kept in its new designated place.
When a mob in Bangalore terrorizes an African student, the American reference is actually the least applicable. There is no question of reimagining black students in India as a ‘minority.’ Euro-American racism has certainly leached into Indian speech and behavior (more in the diaspora than in India itself, I would suggest), but this borrowing is so thinly rooted in the history of that racism that it is highly superficial: an easily available imitative gesture, like the monkey-gestures that were directed at the black Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds in India some years ago. Indian racism against people perceived as black, and Africans in particular, is real and pervasive, but it is not an ideology in its own right. It is, rather, a practice extemporized from cultural rubble: neighborhood and campus tensions, perceptions of the relative wealth and power of different categories of foreigners, imported discourses of savagery that are understood at the level of picture books. Affiliating that racism with its American counterpart is like ascribing ‘anti-Semitism’ – a European ideology with a European history bracketed by Jewish emancipation after 1791 and annihilation before 1945 – to Arabs in the erstwhile Ottoman lands and post-Algerian-War Europe. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, anti-black racism in India is not primarily about blacks, blackness, or aversion to dark skin. It is about an illiberal community reacting to a perceived foreign presence in its midst when foreignness is unprotected by a color – of skin or of passport – associated with power.
It is also about the widening of an Indian practice of normalcy and dominance, in which the status of women, minorities, outsiders and pariahs is underlined by recognizable rituals of crowd violence. The Tanzanian woman was treated like a Dalit, not because she was black, but because that is how Indian crowds have long put people in their place and experienced themselves as communities of power. Bangladeshis and Biharis (and at one time, Gujaratis and ‘Madrasis’) in Mumbai, Manipuris and Nagas in Delhi, Sikhs in 1984, the Chinese in 1962, and Dalits, Muslims and women (of all classes and communities, although not equally) at all times have been subjected to the order of the mob. Well-developed discourses of otherness and inferiority exist only in the last three instances, but it turns out that such discourses are not necessary for that much-debated Indian phenomenon: ‘intolerance.' Racism towards Africans is readily acknowledged as an Indian problem even by people who bristle at the suggestion that there is widespread intolerance towards Muslims. The first makes India 'look bad' in the global press, and the acknowledgment of crimes against foreigners is a part of the damage-control. The second is intimate and existential. Like a crime within the family, it cannot be admitted even to yourself.
If something has gone wrong, it began decades ago, when older patterns of exclusion and domination converged with new civic identities, rendering public space particularly dangerous to anyone who could be identified as a misfit or an upstart. What has happened relatively recently, however, is a reinforcement of that public violence by the state, which is increasingly prepared to utilize the mob as a surrogate. A distinction must be made at this juncture. The reliance of Indian politicians and parties on mobs (usually organized from cadres or hired lumpen) is of long standing, and every party that has sniffed power has been guilty of it. But the mob-as-nation is a specialty of the Hindu right, which can govern the state but also strategically locate itself outside the state, among the 'public.' Nationhood itself – with its compulsive quest for an order of insiders and outsiders – has, accordingly, taken on the quality of the mob.
Few would argue that the Indian government systematically encourages attacks on Tanzanian women, or on blacks. (Besides, Karnataka is governed by the Congress, not the BJP.) But it does not seem to be especially disturbed by such attacks either, because what happened in Bangalore is not divergent from a particular understanding of nationhood, with its rituals of belonging, demands for order, and assorted compulsions. In this nation, the many will always take for granted the right to humiliate or kill the few – it knows no other way of self-constitution, with the exception of an anxious self-congratulation that highlights its investment in modernity. The day after the incident, Indian scientists announced their development of a vaccine for the Zika virus (a proud moment for the nation, naturally), underlining the Indian condition as a scientifically accomplished lynch mob. As I observed earlier, it is not really about blacks. It is always about Muslims, Dalits and women, in the sense that that is where the patterns and permissions of Indian mob violence originate.

February 5, 2016