July 5, 2010. In an article titled "The trophies of Operation Green Hunt," the academic Nandini Sundar interrogates the complete erasure of stories of large scale violence deployed by the Indian state on its tribal subjects. She documents the rapes, murders, arrests, and encounters, most of which are disproportionately carried out on women.
The unprecedented degree of state-sponsored violence carried out on indigenous women is the subject of her critical interrogation. Most of these stories of violence go unnoticed and unheard.
We don't feel outrage as middle-class subjects of Shining India, having been led to believe that this is collateral damage that is natural to our democracy. The media mostly don't cover the cases, and even when they do, the story is buried somewhere in a back page in a small paragraph. And even when we see these stories, we pass on, getting on with our lives.
We are normalized into not feeling empathy. Noting this collective inability to interrogate the mass murder and rape of indigenous women, Sundar asks the reader eloquently:
"If the security forces can treat dead women like hunting trophies, not only trussing their bodies to poles, but taking pride in displaying their kill, is it surprising that their behaviour towards the living is so atrocious? After every deadly attack by the Maoists, ‘civil society actors’ are summoned by TV channels to condemn the incident, substituting moral indignation for news analysis. And yet, the same media is strangely silent on police or paramilitary atrocities against civilians. On June 9, The Hindu published stories of rapes in and around Chintalnar in Dantewada by special police officers (SPOs) of the Chhattisgarh government. To my knowledge, no one’s asked P. Chidambaram, Raman Singh or the Chhattisgarh DGP to condemn these incidents or even asked what they are going to do about it. These are people in positions of power, who are elected or paid to uphold the Constitution, and the ‘buck stops with them’, not with ordinary citizens.
If channels can run all-day programmes on justice for Ruchika Girhotra, why not for the adivasi girls who were raped and assaulted in and around Chintalnar between May 26-28? Is it because they are not middle class and their plight will not raise TRP ratings? Or because they are considered ‘collateral damage’ in the war between “India” and the “Maoists”—who, not being part of “India”, are presumably from outer space—that TV commentators advocate?"
December 21, 2012. The collective candle-holding protests in the capital of India, Delhi, protesting the gang rape of a para-medical student who was traveling on a city bus at night depicts the power of collective mobilization. That so many Indians have come to the streets demanding justice depicts the extremity of the situation in Delhi, and speaks to the possibilities of change in a culture that is built on the mix of feudal violence, patriarchy, and neoliberal development. Politicians have raised vigorously the issue of justice in the Indian parliament and the theme reverberated through the offline and online protests registered by the Indian people, asking for justice to be doled out.
The images of the mobilization have been the theme of the 24-7 news channels over the past three days, with the lead taken by the TRP-grabbing media of India Today. You could see the India Today reporters going in and out of the protesting crowds, deftly placing their microphones in front of crowds of protesting students, taking up its activist function. You could also see the camera search out the right angle for coverage, fixating on the correct shot that would fetch the TRP. The voice of the anchor, cloaked in a mix of desperation and seriousness, dances between the stance of an investigative journalist and an activist. The fight for justice is on and is being televised.
And then you have the TRP-king Arnab Goswami, the Guru of 24-7 news reporting who shot to fame during the Mumbai attacks, lead the conversation in his high TRP debate simulation show, The Newshour. The conversations in Newshour are shaped by Goswami, with most of the format being driven by him and the outcome he pre-establishes. The format of the session works on excitement, cashes in on a tone of investigative journalism, and works in its sense of depicting a fourth estate role of the media in asking tough questions, being in the face of the powerful. Goswami's show is the most watched news program because of its ability to speak to an English literate, freedom loving Indian citizen for whom freedom exists in the heady mix of liberalized opportunities, stories of growth, and interrogations of everyday forms of corruption.
In many ways, the formatting and frames within which Goswami conducts his show works precisely by speaking to the liberal fantasies of a liberal India, where the consumption of news is also a fantasy. The show functions on the basis of Goswami's ability to gauge the events of the day and pull in the appropriate topic and invite in appropriate personalities to stage the debate, providing the much-needed affective relief and relief of consiousness for the middle class audience it caters to.
For the evenings of the 19th and 20th of December, under the slogan "Where is my India?" the theme of Gosawmi's debate was focused on the question "should death penalty be the appropriate punishment for the perpetrators of rape?" The conversation of the day and the evening built around the collective need to seek revenge, in framing the appropriate consequences for rape. The conversation brought in various experts who offered their perspectives, building the conversation around the right form of punishment for the perpetrators. In this sense, the thread of the debate was pre-configured and the participants played out their roles around pre-configured lines orchestrated by Goswami. The theme of death penalty reverberated across the streets and the many middle class conversations of the three days. The faces of protestors demanding immediate capital punishment are brought to fore, circulated as a sound bite.
The media stayed with the protests, taking on its activist role for primetime before switching on to the much awaited elections in Gujarat, the new source of TRPs. It appears that the branding "Where is my India?" worked for a while, raising rhetorical questions about the loss of democracy and the absence of justice. So today, on 21/12, I am not so suprised to see the trending topic of Times Now to shift to the Gujarat elections. The face of Modi scoring a hat-trick in Gujarat occupies the front page of the Times Now website, with the front page full of the various images of a victorious Modi. The same talking head Smriti Irani, a media personality turned Member of Parliament who rose to fame playing a lead role in Ekta Kapoor's Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, who had taken up the role of the activist asking for death penalty on Goswami's quest for justice for the rape vicitim, turns into a Modi defender on the 21st, noting that Modi's success is the mandate of the Gujarati people, showing the power of his model of development.
Irani's story as a voice on Goswami's TRP quest is worth noting. Her switch from the gender regressive Saas Bahu soaps to being an advocate for gender justice is the power of liberalized India, co-opting resistance as chic, and turning liberty into the very language of patriarchy that it seeks to resist. Resistance gets enacted in the vocal demand for accountability from the police, also an instrument of the neoliberal state deployed all across India to reign in the inconvenient voices of the poor.
In the rest of this essay, I will argue that Irani's switch from being an advocate for gender justice to a defender of Modi holds the key to gender injustices in contemporary Indian culture and to the fabric of gender violence that is embedded within its structures.
The paradox of the violence written into liberal India lies precisely in this celebration of a model of development that produces tremendous opportunities for some even as it disenfranchises large segments of the population, as epitomized by Modi's shining Gujarat.
On one hand, the dramatic rise of malls, multiplexes, apartment complexes on forcefully acquired land, and call centers operate on a logic of violence that remains unquestioned in the middle class narrative. On the other hand, the large scale disenfranchisement of the lower middle classes and the poor, embodied in massive displacement of the poor, further feeds into the culture of violence.
As the scholar-activist Vandana Shiva notes in her writings, the alienation brought about by the violence of development accompanied by the fast accumulation of wealth have bred conditions for gender injustice, connecting desire to the quest for the quick buck to be made in a fast-progressing nation state. The essential logic of gender injustice written into liberalization of the country and its metropole goes unchallenged in public discourse, often reproducing the class-based hypocrisies in the context of the question of violence on women. Public discourse for instance carries the implicit notion that it must be uneducated men from poor or uneducated backgrounds that perpetrate these crimes on women, at the same time, inconveniently forgetting the gender injustices perpetuated by the middle classes and their professions.
The liberation narrative of developed India functions on the migration and labor of large sectors of the middle classes, seeking to make a living in the metropole. And a large percentage of this migrating population of knowledge workers in the neoliberal economy are women. Call centers, software companies and offshore multinationals work successfully in India on the basis of their ability to exploit the economy of scale profitably, paying workers at low prices in the global market and making them work insane hours, often going into late nights without adequate safety provisions. The lowest common denominator of these profit/sweat shops in India is based on their ability to cut costs. So security for the women working late night jobs to cater to the global economy is minimal. Similarly, the state, with its goal of privatizing resources married with the profits to be made in crony capitalism, cannot be bothered to invest into infrastructures and ensuring safety. The hubs of development in Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, or Bangalore are also structurally lacking in the provision of security.
Ironically, the neoliberal narrative of Manmohan's and Modi's India celebrates these forms of everyday violence as markers of liberty. They work by turning the debate into a drama of individual blame and the public quench for justice meted out in violence on the perpetrator. One might argue that the narrative works well precisely through its continued exploitation of women, couched in gender sensitive terms and albeit through the possibilities of micro-emancipation that are written into the liberal opportunities that are created in everyday spaces. So the rape victim becomes the subject of Newshour, her body organized to serve the economic logic of the show.
The narrative of micro-emancipation and empowerment runs deep in the Indian psyche so the conversation in the wake of a nationally articulated crisis asking "Where is my India?" turns quickly to individualized accounts of responsibility, embodied in finding the scapegoat. The candle-burning demand for justice turns uncannily similar to the candle burning protests of the Anna Hazare campaign, demanding an accountable State and being oblivious to the deeper underlying layers of violence that render it corrupt.
So much like how the Anna Hazare rallying of the middle classes in neoliberal India organizes around individual accounts of corruption without taking into task the corruption of development thinking in national liberalization brought about through displacement, violence, and oppression, the candle-lit protest marches on gender justice stop short of questioning the broader politics of gender injustices in neoliberal India, examining the feudal cultural logics of patriarchy that are re-organized in terms of liberalization. That articulations of gender empowerment works precisely within a patriarchal narrative of liberalization rife with violence goes unchallenged.
The violence of neoliberal India lies in the mobilization of middle class participation in mainstream forms of protest that are co-opted into the essential principles of neoliberalism. So the protestors in Delhi and across India, men and women, representing the candle carrying generation of the post Rang De Basanti age, come together to rally for justice asking for the hanging of the cuplrits. In their soundbyte savvy conversations and protest performances of "Woh subah kabhi to ayegi," they remain callously unaware of the broader structural, geographic, political, and economic contexts of violence. They echo "this could happen to me or my sister. So I am on the streets." Or they note, "I feel unsafe. So I am on the streets."
In this narrowly self-interested frame of candle-burning, song singing activism, they remain obliviously unaware of the everyday rapes of women that are carried across India, often by the very police and the para-military deployed by the State. Ask them about Soni Sori or Madavi Hurre and they will be at a loss. Even the calls for solidarity under slogans such as "Her fight is India's fight" stand in for a caste, class, economics-driven politics of privilege and access.
Violence operates by individualizing human agency, and by conscripting agency within censored narratives that work to perpetuate the agendas of the power structures. Violence operates in the absence of the interrogation of the unequal structures and the structural logics that privilege large scale inequalities.
Violence operates in the TRPs of the Saas Bahu soaps and 24-7 News Channels that work together to constrain and co-opt mass participation in social change. Violence is the forgetting the stories of the many indigenous women that are gang-raped by military, police, and para-military forces to bring about development. In neoliberal India, violence is marked in its erasure.
The violence of neoliberal India is voiced in the account of a 17 year old girl in Sundar's essay:
"On July 29, ’07, I was breaking tora in the courtyard of my house when four SPOs came. I ran inside but they dragged me out and took me about one km away. There they tied my hands and feet and blindfolded me and all four gangraped me. They tore all my clothes and broke my jewellery. After that, I managed to escape on the pretext of drinking water and hid in a grain bin in someone’s house. I recognise three of the SPOs—Rajesh from Polampalli, Kiche Soma of Korrapad and Linga from Palamadgu. Even after this incident they came to my house and threatened me. I was too scared to report to the police and, anyway, what would have been the point? I was even too scared to go to the market for fear of being caught and raped again. After being beaten and raped, my body was badly swollen. I was also bitten by a snake while running away that day, but could not go to a doctor. I was treated with local medicine.”
The possibilities of candle light marches lie in the solidarity they depict and the collective pain through which they embolden us to act. But can the people of rising India, asking "Where is my India?" have the courage and the mettle to ask, "Where is my India?" in solidarity with the pain of Soni Sori.