Monday, 31 December 2012

A plea for positive cynicism. Oh, and a happy new year, too.

I spent the last 45 minutes looking for a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke. Shops around here, for some reason, are loyal to Thums Up. Of course, to the average Badlapur resident, it doesn't quite make a difference; especially tonight, as many people aren't that pedantic about which soft drink they're going to mix their alcohol with – Thums Up is the preferred one, I hear. No wonder.
Nevertheless, my frantic, and not to mention pedantic, attempts led to one tiny shop which did sell Coke. In Twitter lexicon, this warrants the hash-tag #firstworldproblems. And now, as I stare at the half-empty glass, waiting for some relatives to pop over, I'm contemplating the past year. 
It's been a tradition of sorts, for me, to write a cynical rant every New Year’s eve for the last two years. The first time, I was alone at home, with no alcohol; the year after, I had a little too much alcohol in me, and a lot of repugnance. This time, right now, I mean, I'm sober. Very disillusioned, and undergoing what may, in the jargon of social sciences, be termed as an epistemological crisis. While the rest of the country's either preparing for a New year's party (except the Indian Army. Such honourable fuckers, these guys are, I tell you) or kicking up a big fuss about Honey Singh's party in some hotel in Gurgaon that I can't remember. 

You guessed it right, this post is about the larger issue that has gripped the nation for the last few weeks, at least: the question of violence against women – a quilted discourse, pinned by the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old physiotherapy student in Delhi. I was angry when I read about it, when I read about the sheer brutality of the incident, and a host of other such incidents; I’m still angry, frustrated even – which is one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to be my usual cynical self in dismissing the protests in the aftermath; protests that were met with an equal brutality meted out the Indian state, especially the Delhi police. 2011 had seen protests too, led by the messianic figure of Anna Hazare (who has, predictably, demanded death penalty for the rapists); heck, there were cosmetic protests even in Bombay itself, just after the incident. But when I saw people, who are very well my peers, in the tear gas-infested streets, wet and beaten, I realised, like Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers, that there is good worth fighting for. Sure, I disagree with the calls for castration and death penalties – these demands are fascist; but so was the way in which their voices were brutally crushed by the state.
Of course, I’ve said the very same things before, and I wouldn’t want to bother you with any more of it. But there’s one thing that has been rather over-powering, something which is bothering me for quite some time now; the cause, if you will, of my current epistemological crisis. My “presumed superior knowledge and intelligence”, as someone succinctly pointed out, has failed me. Another implied that I was “intellectually bankrupt”. Of course, I’m not taking these claims seriously; I have that much faith in my training. But truth remains, despite my intelligence, and my impressive bibliography (or so I like to think), I feel utterly disillusioned; any intelligible comment (again, or so I like to think) gets drowned in the din and clamour of popular discourse. Of course, it’s a different thing that I, following the prolific and verbose Justice Katju, consider most people to be idiots (unlike him, I’m sceptical of numbers). Truth is, there is no intelligence in public discourse today: we’ve got a media that manufactures conscience; a political class rooted in anti ideology, hypocrisy, apathy; a public that is very good at making emphatic calls; and, of course, Arnab Goswami, without whom, verily, our nation is doomed.
We’ve witnessed a culture that displayed a morbid fascination with death – the vast (and shameless, if you ask me) outpouring of eulogies after Thackeray’s death (I mean, did you see/hear Arnab Goswami weep during Bal Thackeray’s funeral?), and the celebration, literally so, after Kasab’s hanging. In other news, the fourth anniversary of 26/11 was a dull affair; this time, surprisingly, they hadn’t barricaded the memorial at VT (Kasab was hung days after this, actually).
So, where am I going with this? Yes, I’m bitter, repugnant and cynical (and, surprisingly, sober). Maybe, people commenting on my presumed intelligence and intellectual bankruptcy are right. I have a friend who, of late, has been bothered by the fact that I don’t have any clear political leanings. “You’re not a capitalist, nor a socialist; neither are you right-wing, nor an atheist. What…are you?” My answer usually involves complex sociological jargon which, actually, doesn’t quite amount to anything substantial. But tonight, I think I may have an answer for him. I am a positive cynic.
Partly, because one of my friends on Twitter commented that no one else he knows really lived up to their Twitter handle (something I found incredibly flattering; thanks, Bob!). But mostly because positive cynicism, as an intellectual space, really sums up my epistemological leanings: which is, well, disillusionment (that also happens to be my current existential profile). By positive cynicism, I mean a condition wherein I avoid both the naivety and radicalisation of political views. Sure, I punch holes in people’s arguments, and alternatives, more so; but that is an important job; a mission to civilize, as Will McAvoy of HBO’s The Newsroom put it. I’m not backing away from taking political stances, either, mind you. If I think castrations are not the answer, I believe I have sufficiently defended that stance. I’m not in the vocation of giving solutions, either. My training in anthropology doesn’t quite allow for that so easily. But I may be able to tell you where an intervention would fail, and where it might succeed. You see, that’s the brilliance of anthropology. That it’s rooted in a deeper problem, a constant epistemological crisis; that it blends scepticism, analytical rigour, scientific method, abstraction – all disparate elements, if you observe from afar – so brilliantly. Yes, I’m disillusioned by the narrow confines of traditional academia; but that’s changing now; the sociological imagination has become more diverse, more analytical, more empirical. And that is something I am looking to be a part of. That is where I see positive cynicism heading. A critical sphere, akin to the Frankfurt School’s endeavours (apologies for the umpteen references).
Ah, well, I’ve said too much. And I’ve realised that this post isn’t nearly half as repugnant and bitter as the previous two New Year’s eve ones. The relatives are about to arrive soon and I’m on my second glass of Coke now. I think I need something stronger. Alcohol does wonders for disillusionments, I’ve discovered. Let’s see if it has the same effect on epistemological crises. The world didn’t end, and we’re going to have to make do with this one. Oh, and before I forget, happy New Year, and have a brilliant 2013 (#sarcasmintended).

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

"They don't really care about us."

Note: This post is a follow-up to an earlier post (click here), wherein I've made certain preliminary arguments on the Delhi gang-rape & murder incident. 

A thought has been bothering me for quite some time now: I’m not sufficiently anti-establishmentarian enough; that, after a point, I’d still be willing to invest whatever little bit of faith I have in my reserves in the machinery of the state, rather than ideologues, demagogues and the so-called civil society. That illusion has shattered.
It’s been about a week since I have been angry and outraged at the brutal gang-rape of a 23 year-old physiotherapist in Delhi, and an equally brutal assault on her friend. I’m still angry, and I want to be. But when I saw cosmetic protests organised at my college just the other day, or when I heard a clamour for death penalties and castrations on the social media, or when I saw politicians and celebrities and god-knows-who-else behave like they’re freaking PhDs in dealing with violence against women, I was disillusioned. The state, I knew very well, was as indifferent as hell. And as Vivek Kaul so rightly wrote, the only reason why the six perpetrators have been arrested – despite the Delhi Police Commissioner’s claims of the blind case being solved in record time – is because the perpetrators were not some politician’s kids, nor were they associated with any political outfits; neither were they cops, nor army-men; or anyone on a very long list of people who will never be held accountable for the crimes they commit.
That’s the first failure. Unfortunately, there have been several more, far too many for me to articulate in this space.

Three problems
Three things that have bothered me, more so with respect to the aftermath of this incident: The first of course is the way in which the media manufactures conscience and outrage (my incredibly crass interpretation of Chomsky’s “propaganda model”; I refuse to call it the “press” or “journalism” because those values, I believe, are entirely absent in public discourse). The industrial nature of the news media requires this manufacturing of conscience; it doesn't care about causes. It happened with the deaths of Keenan and Rueben in Amboli last year; with the Guwahati assault earlier this year; and now, the Delhi gang-rape incident. I’m not commenting on the good or bad of reporting: clearly, some channels and papers are providing exceptional coverage of the incident. But very few manage to break away from this discourse of manufacturing conscience. However, since I've dealt with this issue sufficiently, I shall not bother the reader with any more polemics against the media.
My second problem is with the ideological response to the incident, primarily by politically motivated groups – like the BJP, or the ABVP, or Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party – they have, all of them, hopped on to the “dissing-the-government” bandwagon. For them, essentially, this case isn't any different from the FDI in retail, the 2G spectrum allocation scam, the coal block allocation scam, or any of the UPA’s other bluders, for that matter: they are at India Gate to garner political mileage. This is political posturing at its worse, and its most crass levels. In a Kafila, post arguing against this political double standard-ness, Shuddhabrata Sengupta decimates Sushma Swaraj’s callous comments on the nature of the crime; Swaraj, who said that rape is “worse than death”, and the victim was “zinda lash” or a living corpse, Sengupta argues, is actually “endorsing the patriarchal value system that produces rape”, and that she and the rapist “are in perfect agreement about the worth of the life of a rape victim”. In another Kafila article, Pratiksha Baxi argues that the right-wing politician is “not concerned with how a strident Hindu nationalism is built on the violated bodies of women”. No one in the BJP (or anywhere else, for that matter) cared sufficiently about Dalit girls being raped and set on fire in Haryana; or when women in the North East, like Manorama, continue to raped, molested and killed by army men and paramilitary forces; or in the Naxal-affected areas, when policemen are engaged in custodial rapes; or when politicians and their goons get away with rapes, and get elected into parliament. Unfortunately, rape is reduced to the violation of the woman’s honour; as an aberration to the normalcy of things, where ‘normal’ is defined as a state where women and marginalised groups blindly accept their exploitation and maintain the status quo.
Third, and finally, I have a problem with the state’s violent action against the protestors at India Gate. Make no mistake, I’ve never taken warmly to protests, marches, vigils and all that; there’s a deep sense of scepticism I have towards “well meaning” civil society action; but a deeper sense of disillusionment at the failure of governance: something I've called a governance of paranoia – wherein the political (and powered) class is informed by illogical reactionism, and not a coherent ideological standpoint. This is not to suggest that the problem is merely anti ideological. It is the failure on the part of ideologies, and modes of governance to adapt, to say: “We were wrong”. Because it is precisely this posturing, this ambivalence in governance, this resistance to acknowledge the truth that “the emperor has no clothes”, is what maintains the illusion of power. I concede that this argument is incredibly complex, but I shall attempt to deal with it further on.

Disparate discourses
There is a parallel I see in the Delhi police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar’s, insistence on not acknowledging the fact that the police screwed up at India gate (and on several occasions in the past), and in the National Rifle Association’s unapologetic stance (summed up with the ridiculous reasoning: “Guns don't kill people, people do”) in the aftermath of the Sandy Hooks shooting massacre in Connecticut, just over a week ago. These are disparate incidents, separated by thousands of miles and, on the face of it, have no commonality. Yet, I believe that they are deeply connected. For one, the brutality of shootings and rapes are borne directly by marginal groups, in this case, children, students, and women – groups that require the state’s protection, by any standard of liberal democracies. Secondly, and unfortunately, both the United States government and the Indian state have, time and again, refused to acknowledge the chronic nature of the problems of gun-proliferation and shootouts, and rapes, respectively; nor have they offered any long term solutions; from President Obama’s teary eyes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s incoherent and, ultimately, inconsequential mumbling, the state, in both cases and countries, has simply sidestepped the issue, proffering only symptomatic solutions and empty rhetoric. Right-wing ideology and patriarchy are powerful ideologies, no doubt. However, that fact that a sovereign nation should so consistently fail to keep both in check is staggering, unless, of course, there is a deeper problem in the very nature of governance itself.

What we've got here, is failure of governance
Clearly, I’m disillusioned with both major parties in this struggle: the protestors, and the state. My scepticism of the Delhi protests is informed by two major ideas: one, is the criticisms levelled against civil society by the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek; and idea of the “political society” formulated by the subaltern studies scholar, Partha Chatterjee. While Žižek’s criticisms are founded more on the ideological nature of civil society in his native Slovenia, Chatterjee, being much closer to home, offers more relevant insights. That the nation is following the India Gate protests so closely; that many such protests are being replicated across the country, in Bangalore, in Mumbai, and other cities, is what Chatterjee calls the domain of the “civil society”. Opposed to this civil society is the “political society”, i.e., the social groups like Dalits, de-notified tribes, slum dwellers, who negotiate with governing agencies, usually bureaucrats, low level civil servants, but people who exercise considerable power at the micro-level (my apologies to Partha Chatterjee for reducing his arguments to this dichotomy, but I've done so for the sake of better comprehension). 
I’ve had the chance to observe such negotiations first hand on several research projects: where people living in bastis spend every day without the certainty of work, or that their makeshift houses would be standing by the time they get home from work. There have been many incidents of rapes in similar areas across the country, most of them usually go unreported, or are a column in newspapers which dedicate full pages to advertisements. Things are worse in states like Orissa, or the North East, where atrocities are carried out against women like clockwork. The brutal nature of the crimes against these women, many of whom brave tremendous odds to fight for justice (for instance the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir has done commendable work in the Shopian murder-rape case), does indeed unite them in a discourse of resistance.
Despite of all my cynicism and scepticism, I empathised with the protesters at Delhi; while I do not endorse their views, I do share their anger, their frustration, their angst and their fears. From the ground at Raisina Hill and India Gate, Nilanjana Roy and Aditya Nigam wrote that the protestors were anything but violent in the initial phase, and that they did wish to engage in dialogue with the administration, before the police started lobbing tear gas, that is. Why, then, did the administration, in this case, the Delhi police, not engage in dialogue with the protestors? Why must the Indian state’s response always oscillate between abject apathy and excessive brutality? I suspect it is because the very nature of governance, as I mentioned before, is based on the insistence that the emperor is indeed clothed – and the Indian state insists on insisting with tear gas, water cannons, lathi charges and Section 144.
I understand I've not been very clear about what I mean when I say a "patriarchal nation-state" or "governance". Let me address this ambiguity. First of all, with respect to the nation-state, many greater minds before mine have argued that the very nature of the modern nation-state is patriarchal, i.e., it values a particular class of citizens over others; in the West, it's exemplified by the WASP - White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. In India, as the authors of Why Loiter? Women and Risks on Mumbai Streets have argued, it is the upper caste, upper class, heterosexual, Hindu men who form the top section of this hierarchy. Women, Dalits, lower caste men, Muslims (young men, in particular), gays, lesbians, transgenders, hijras, and a host of other categories constitute the "undesirable" body, in a descending order of undesirability. The patriarchal nation-state discriminates against these very groups, by policing them, by marginalising them.  And this is an anathema to the very idea of modern, sovereign liberal democracies. And by governance, I mean not just the official mechanism of the state, but, following the French Marxist scholar, Louis Althusser's "ideological state apparatus", includes the official state mechanism, the institutions of the family, ideology, religion, media and so forth. In a patriarchal-nation state, these elements, these parties come together to form a virulent discourse of exclusion and belonging; of policing and punishing it's members; of fear and false consciousness (which, Žižek or Sloterdjik would argue, is actually the peoples' cynical acceptance of the fact that they are being fooled).  Perhaps, there is a problem in my usage of the term "governance" itself, which assumes that there can be an ideal mode of governance, that is, in the liberal democratic sense. The assumption, I am realising now, is certainly ill-founded, as both Althusser, and the French social theorist, Michel Foucault (particularly his works on governmentality and biopolitics) would agree.
Rape, then, is a political tool against dissent: it is an articulation of violence, of intolerance, of the severest insensitivity; of patriarchal governmentality’s recourse to extrajudicial means to crush any and all levels of transgression, political, social, or otherwise. Delhi police’s action against the protestors at India Gate was rape; it was an assault on democracy; it was a step into a fascist future, right alongside the demands for death penalties and castrations; it was an act of violence which endangers not just women’s safety and rights in our country, but that of citizens’ altogether; particularly social groups which do not have access to media coverage, let alone the posturing of political parties, or the sympathies of the general Indian public. And the failure to acknowledge the fact that rape is a problem - that it is not about sex; nor is it about "men assaulting women", or about morality; that it is used to further political agenda, to silence dissent, to obfuscate the nuanced nature of violence, is a muted justification and a shameless vilification of rape.

“They don’t really care about us”
The patriarchal nation-state, the elite civil society and misogynistic political ideologies, by their nature, are inimical to the discourse of women’s access to rights, to address the burning issue of violence against them. Violence against women, in this case rape (‘women’ being incredibly fissured category) is either a political tool itself, or is of absolutely no concern to the parties I mentioned above. Women claiming to speak for women, like the BJP MLAs, propagate the patriarchal ideology of subordination of women by placing a price on their honour and chastity; families would seek to police women, restrict their mobility; the state, as we have clearly established, fails on so many levels – failing to ensure protection, and at the same time, violating it; civil society, on the other hand, is limited by the very narrow nature of its interest; and as for academia, well, I certainly can vouch for the feeling of helpless that has gripped me.
Who, then, speaks for the women? Who cares for them? Are women, as many feminist scholars argue, merely property in the patriarchal political economy? – To be terminated as a foetus, or be killed before they have a chance to live? – That raped women, or those who exercise their sexual freedom, are “damaged goods”?
At this point, I have nothing better to offer than a handful of these questions: questions that I hope someone would answer; or, more importantly, that someone would ask. Personally, I have no hopes for an answer. I am angry, and at the same time, I am reflecting back on my masculinity, on the assumptions that society has thwarted on my gender. Unfortunately, I do not know how many men out there are doing so. Responding to my previous post, one of my professors suggested that rape is a man’s burden…that there is actually soul searching to be done by every man, because at some point in our lives we have all done violence to women. I want to disagree with this, but I know that I can’t: for, not speaking against injustice is also to exacerbate it, if not to partake in it. That is one of the reasons why I write. But, if ever the process of writing was cathartic, it has now ceased to be so.

Acknowledgements: First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who read, and commented on, the earlier post: their comments and responses have been incredibly motivational. To Shubhra Rishi, for once again being critical and supportive, and for the engaging discussions over GTalk; to my teacher, Fr. Joseph, to whom I am indebted for the sociological nature of my arguments; to my class mates, particularly Natasha Patel, Tasneem Kakal and Simone Salazar. And, finally, to Runcil Rebello, Achyuth Sankar and Anubhav Dasgupta for being such avid readers, and for all the 'Shares' and 'Tweets'.

Friday, 21 December 2012

"So fucking disappointing, I tell you."

I was filled with a deep sense of disgust, repugnance, loathing and anger when I read about the brutal gang rape and assault of the 23 year-old physiotherapist and her friend, aboard a moving bus in Delhi. I was, and I still am, indignant, as my hands shook when I read about the the inhuman and brutal nature of the crime. I cannot, however, give into anger. I wish I could – and god knows, I want to. But I simply can’t. One reason is because being angry feels good, but the feeling’s cosmetic; secondly, regrettably, I came to terms with just how inured we have become, socially and culturally, to such issues. Sure there’s a lot of media outrage, blood-lust and cries for vigilantism out there – but, where was this “outrage” when Dalit girls were raped, and brutally assaulted/murdered in Haryana only just a month back? – When Khap Panchayats ludicrously suggested that early marriages and stopping consumption of chow mein would magically stop rape, as these measures would address the uncontrollable sexual urge among the men? – Or when Mamata Banerjee claimed that free interaction between boys and girls, who hold hands in public, leads to rape? – When three children were raped, murdered and their bodies disposed-off in the Nehru Nagar slums in Mumbai?

Manufacturing conscience, manufacturing outrage
Clearly, we need the outrage. But the problem is: this is manufactured outrage. A cosmetic, placatory mechanism, much the same way such outrage and sympathy was manufactured in two other high-profile cases in the last year, namely the Amboli double murders and the Guwahati sexual assault incident. Our conscience, our sympathies, despite the sincerity, are farcical, misplaced and superficial; in an earlier post, I’d argued that unless we discuss the problem of violence against women, be it rapes, molestation,  assaults, or whatever, and not tangential issues, there would not be any real move towards addressing this issue. For a moment, I thought we were beyond that. I was wrong. With respect to the Delhi gang rape, there’s a clamour for justice, and justice, in this case, is loosely translated to two things: either hang the perpetrators, or castrate them. I have a problem with both these suggestions.

Why “killing/castrating the bastards” would not help
The death penalty debate is the single most divisive issue that I’ve come across in the last few days, especially since one of the accused requested that he be hanged. One side argues that death would give the perpetrator “an easy way out”; instead, they must be made to suffer, either through life imprisonment, or, as this radical post suggests, be castrated. This side adds that death penalties have, and can never be effective deterrents. The castrationists (I believe no term would suit them better), however, think that the prospect of having their “balls cut off” would inspire fear, and ergo, at least to a point, prevent rapes.
I have no intelligible response to this hogwash. But let us evaluate the problems posed by the castrationist argument, shall we? Most glaringly, it completely ignores the more discursive nature of gendered violence (something I’ve discussed below). For one, the plea for castration is based on retribution: “do the same thing to them that they do to the woman”. How does this logic, functionally speaking, differ from a death penalty?
Vivek Kaul, I believe, presents a convincing argument in destabilising this misplaced assumption. He’s right when he presents his scepticism regarding the efficacy (and therefore, misuse) of chemical castration. In my opinion, it certainly will not serve as a deterrent: sure, rapes may stop or reduce; but instances of acid-throwing could increase, or murders, for that matter. What about human trafficking? Or marital rape? Custodial rapes? Sexual assault by armed forces? 
And to push absurd castrationist claim further: what’s to say there wouldn’t emerge a pre-emptive mechanism? – Based on skewered data, the state  could formulate a demographic group most likely to commit rapes (which, I’m assuming, based on how people have unproblematically pointed out the region from where the perpetrators of the Delhi rape incident hail, would reflect of such essentialism), and then proceed to castrate them before they have to opportunity to rape anyone. Or, as Kaul suggests:
“More often than not they will get hold of some random guy (the homeless, the slum dweller or probably just about the first person they can get their eyes on) beat the shit out of him and get him to confess to it.”
Thing is, last I checked, we were still a democracy, and have not yet descended into fascism. Philosophical considerations aside, can rape be attributed to just a badly essentialised biological drive? Can there be a social etiology of rape? And, if we do, miraculously, arrive at one, how different is this diagnosis from the archaic Khap Panchayat fatwas (apart from being inverted, that is)?

The death penalty, I know, is far more problematic. Commenting on a Facebook post, I suggested that such crimes against women be dealt with “extreme prejudice”. Of course, people took it to mean that I was advocating the death penalty. But before the connotations of my comment are dissected, let me defend my argument here. I am not condoning the death penalty: I think there’s something incredibly wrong in a sovereign, democratic state, backed by the will of the people, meting out judgements in death; nor am I partaking in the popular bloodlust and calling for vigilantism. By “extreme prejudice”, I mean to suggest that we break the hegemonic nature of judicial process; one way to do so, is by shifting the burden of proof from the victim/survivor to the perpetrator. For too long have politicians, community leaders, bureaucrats, police officers and what-nots shifted the blame of sexual assault on the women, for “provoking rape”, or “consenting to it”; that rapes are “political conspiracies”, or simply, that the victims are “prostitutes” (Tehelka, in their April edition, exposed how cops and officials in the Delhi NCR region, callously and shamelessly attributing the blame for rapes squarely on women).
Would you expect justice, any form of justice, in such a warped, misogynistic society? Where the law and public discourse is rigged to discriminate against women at every turn? I think not. That said, even with superficial polemical pleas for “justice”, we are looking only at retributive justice. Hangings, castrations, tougher sentences, lynching – where does the victim figure in all of this? Unfortunately, no matter how much the public clamours for “justice”, no matter how vile their bloodlust is, unless and until our notion of justice can be ameliorative for the victim, and for women at large, such posturing, such polemics are pointless.
In this context, Nilanjana Roy presents a strong case against the death penalty. Since 90% of rape cases in India are perpetrated by people known to the victim, if we do push for the death penalty, it would, she suggests, be “executing the neighbours”. The scenario certainly is frightening. It’s one thing to demand that a relatively obscure perpetrator be hanged; it is, as Shilpa Phadke suggests, a policing of not only women, but also of undesirable bodies (i.e. lower class/caste men, Muslim men, the ill-defined 'Biharis') in the urban space. As callous as it sounds, no one cares about them until they “invade” or “violate” our spaces and rape “our women”. Kaul’s scepticism (and mine, too), I believe, is sufficiently vindicated.
Are death sentences, then, the answer? Honestly, I don’t know. Because, if I am making a plea for “extreme prejudice”, I am arguing that the law function impartially (irrespective of how problematic that may seem in reality). This isn’t optimism, mind you. It is, for the lack of a better term, a necessary evil. I certainly do not, and cannot, subscribe to the belief that recourse to extra judicial means is the only effective answer. And for those who think death penalties would not act as deterrents, I know they won’t. But, since they are legal as of now, if a court of law, with due legal process, delivers a verdict in a case as brutal as this, I certainly have no qualms if the courts gave a death sentence to the accused. That said, I will not sign a petition which demands a death penalty for them. If, conversely, there’s a petition to repeal the death penalty, I will sign it, I’ll vote on it. But, as problematic as it is, I choose not to make misplaced moral judgements regarding the same.

The game is rigged
While sexual assault is, I reiterate, but one aspect of violence against women, it’s important to consider the more discursive nature of the same. Rape, defined broadly as non-consensual, penetrative sexual intercourse, is but one form of gendered, sexual violence. There’s no consensus in the definition of rape. Sure, the modifications in Indian rape laws, may be looked at as a step in the right direction (click here); but, with corresponding changes in the legal mechanism, like the Evidence Act, these moves fall woefully short of their potential. In most cases, though, they are an abject failure.
Patriarchal hegemony and structured misogyny are, and I can’t underwrite this any more than what I already have, very nuanced and incredibly brutal systems of oppression. This does not mean that perpetrators of any crime against women are acting purely in submission, to a force beyond their control. Patriarchy exists in practice. It exists, and it manifests itself every time a woman is denied access to public space, every time she’s a victim of acid-throwing, of battery, murder, sexual assault etc. And these instances, these enunciations of patriarchy and misogyny, these acts of gendered violence (although, following Judith Butler, one could argue that all violence is gendered), I believe, constitute violence against women. Would castration or the death penalty stop anything? I’m afraid not. It’s far more deep-seated. Maybe, as many advocate, we need long term plans, or as one person suggested: “As labour force participation increases, sex ratios should self-correct via a positive feedback loop”.
Although I agree with a considerable portion of them, and a bulk of my academic work focuses on the critical analysis of hegemonic masculinity, I’m not entirely optimistic about such long-term plans; not with the kind of reality we are witnessing today – the callousness, the ignorance, the disinterest, the selective reporting, the selective protesting, the manufacturing of conscience and outrage by the media, to name a few. I was wrong to assume that the issue of women’s safety, of violence against them, has shed considerable hogwash from the time of the Guwahati incident. It has not. If anything, it has gotten worse.

The polemic remains the same
We have heard this polemic before. Every time gory visuals flash on our screens, every time we are tagged in badly composed Facebook posts, or asked to wear black to “protest against the Delhi rape case” (regrettably, though not unsurprisingly, one might ask: which rape case? Yes, that’s how bad things are), I grow more and more disheartened. The polemics, essentially, are templates: to arouse anger, fear, disgust, outrage and what not. Petitions demanding death penalties are shared; previous cases become statistics; new ones occupy more column inches, and then fade away.
And it gets us nowhere. It does nothing to ameliorate the brutality inflicted on the woman. Namita Bhandare, in an insightful piece written after the series of rapes of Dalit girls in Haryana, argues that women who survive any form ofviolence, in this case, rape, are survivors and not victims; that they deserve justice, and not sympathy. I couldn’t agree more with her proposition. But when you hear about survivors, like the woman who was raped in Calcutta earlier this year, (the one Mamata Banerjee alleged was a political conspiracy to malign her government) living in penury, stigmatised, marginalised, with absolutely no support system, I am…disheartened. Then you have people like Dhoble raiding bars and pubs, supposedly busting prostitution rackets, while women are assaulted in broad daylight, and callously labelled prostitutes by his counterparts in Delhi. I don’t care if they are in different states; they are the fucking system. And then I am asked to change my display picture to show solidarity, or wear black to college, attend a march or partake in some other cosmetic exercise. So fucking disheartening, I tell you. When people ask me, with my “presumed superior knowledge and intelligence”, for an answer: I inevitably disappoint them. Hell, I want to be optimistic; I want to believe that there’s a solution. But more than the seemingly increased cases of violence against women, it is the bullshit that follows these incidences, or the apathy and lack of coverage that disappoints me. Just today, a friend of mine said that no matter what we discuss in class (which is a niched space, she added), or what the public thinks: all this makes no difference to her every time she “goes out there”; she has to deal with the stares, the comments, the fear. I had no response. I just hoped that she had a safe journey back home. Fortunately, I thought, at least she was travelling with her brother. The very next moment, I hated myself for thinking so. And I’m not feeling any better since, as I write an incredibly unsatisfying ending to what will be added to a long list of inconsequential ramblings.
So fucking disappointing, I tell you.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Shubhra Rishi for her critical comments on the earlier draft of this essay, and for being so encouraging and supportive even otherwise; to my classmate, Shakti Nambiar, for the engaging discussions in our gender studies class, as well as for elucidating the nuances of rape laws in India, and for bring forth perspectives that I'd have otherwise ignored. And finally, I am indebted to Simone Salazar for pointing out the several flaws in my reasoning; her criticisms have always been helpful.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A plea for Indian Liberalism? Rethinking the Left’s role in the Liberal Exercise

I don’t think I’ve called myself a liberal. I am, I believe, rooted more in the neo-Marxian tradition of Marcuse and Althusser; unabashedly Foucauldian in some sense, and a huge fan of Žižek. There are, of course, other intellectual strands that have inspired me, and continue to do so; in many ways, I’m still in my formative years. That said, I’m not a Leftist: I do not believe that the Left would (or far less, could) achieve a working version of a Marxian utopia. And I certainly am not on the Right. So, I guess that makes me a de facto liberal.
Last night, I had the opportunity to listen to one of India’s foremost and widely respected intellectuals, and an unabashed liberal, himself: Ramachandra Guha. I had, for quite some time, been anticipating his lecture, ‘The Rise and Fall of India’s Liberal Tradition’ at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, especially after having reading an excerpt from his latest book, Patriots and Partisans, in the Outlook Magazine. Unlike the Left’s (that is, the CPI(M)’s) practised archaic polemic against the state, or, for that matter Kejriwal’s anti-corruption rhetoric, Guha’s opinions have always been a curious blend of sociological analysis and are, as he claims, polemical.
This essay isn’t a review of Guha’s lecture. Here, I borrow some of his most influential thoughts from last night, to argue out a different conception of Indian liberalism, positing my ideas of challenges and limitations. I am, of course, deeply indebted to Guha for entertaining my rather long question in the Q&A segment – something which shall form the basis of my present argument.

Guha, as the title of his lecture goes, began speaking of the rise of India’s liberal tradition – tracing a genealogy from Ram Mohan Roy, to Gokhale, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru, to his teacher, Dharma Kumar. He then traced the major threats to Indian liberalism in the post-Independence era – the first, being the Hindu Right-wing extremism, exemplified by Ghodse’s assassination of Gandhi; and the second, the radical Left-wing extremism which, Guha claimed eloquently, never had any fondness for the Indian state in the first place. In the 70s, however, there was another threat. The threat from the democratic centre, Guha argues, began with Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule, culminating in the Emergency years, and finally, the rise of dynastic politics in India – which, Guha suggests, impeded the governance mechanism, the bureaucracy and public institutions, most of all. Increased arbitrariness and violence by the police and armed forces in conflict zones, too, was and does, constitute a significant threat to liberalism in India (Guha's essay 'The Absent Liberal', in the Outlook Magazine provides the context for his this argument).
Guha ends up underwriting more problems than he does in resolving them – something I admire about him, and a position, which I believe, is rooted in his training as a sociologist. And it is in this respect that he has no qualms making a polemic for liberalism – which, he argues, must reclaim patriotism from the Hindu Right-wing chauvinists. Increased dialogue and a more dynamical political process, he suggests would help assert liberalism in India, where people aren’t reduced to being “useful idiots” (in Lenin’s terms), or apologists. In this regard, Guha is incredibly patriotic, rejecting any label of “global citizenship”. Liberalism’s strength, Guha asserts, is its incremental nature; the fact that it never remains tied to an ideology, like the radical Left and the Right, rejecting any claims of creating a utopia. It is precisely this criticality, I believe, that allows Guha to posit the democratic centre as a threat to liberalism.

In The End of History and the Last ManFrancis Fukuyama, working extensively with Hegel's dialectics, argues a very strong case for liberal democracies: with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have, he suggests, arrived at the end of history in the Hegelian sense. Of course, Fukuyama’s arguments, as we read them twenty years since he made them, do appear to be weak, if not entirely naïve. The crisis in the Balkans, ethnic cleansing and genocides in Africa, the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, its rising debt crisis, the resurgence of the radical Right, like the Tea Party Movement, or the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States, and a general increase in parochialism in other parts of the world, China’s rise as a dominant global power, to name a few. In this respect, I am undoubtedly more inclined to a Marcusian-Althusserian critique of the capitalist/neoliberal political economy than what Guha seems to suggest – which, in his terms, would be Left-leaning liberalism, but liberalism nevertheless.
Clearly, then, with the concerns Guha raises, Fukuyama’s arguments do not hold very well. Liberal democracies may well be the dominant political-economic paradigm, but with the threats from the democratic centre itself, from multinational corporations and unregulated capitalism, there’s a lot Fukuyama left  under-theorised (to no fault of his own, as he did revisit his arguments in Our Posthuman Future). Although Guha’s arguments for Indian liberalism are incredibly contextual, hinged on his idea of reclaiming patriotism, in my view rethinking liberalism requires a more discursive, global engagement. In defending my stance, however, I take recourse to another of Guha’s suggestions: that there’s a lot the world could learn from Indian liberalism as well. Indian liberalism, Guha argues, moves beyond the narrow rubric of economic organisation. India’s pluralism, its diversity, its cultural heritage – the fact that as the world’s largest democracy we’ve achieved so much, stands as testimony to the strength of Indian liberalism. Sure, there have been problems with democracy, many from outside, and some from within; but Guha’s faith in the rule-bound, impersonal public institutions is something I cautiously share. Žižek, whom I cited in a previous essay, also expresses similar views, mostly stemming from his distrust of civil society (which he calls fundamentalist, right-wing, and most of all, unaccountable).
Guha’s polemic suggests that Indian liberals be more vocal, unafraid; that incremental social change and political pluralism, should inform Indian liberalism – not narrow economic models of profit maximisation or paranoia-driven governance, and certainly more faith in its democratic institutions. In my opinion, however, for the Indian Left to make crucial contributions to this liberal programme, it needs to shed its apologist stance and fealty to classical Marxism. While there’s a lot that Indian liberalism could contribute to the world, the Indian Left, I feel, must eschew its superficial fealty to classical Marxism and whatever illusions it harbours of achieving a utopia. In an earlier essay, defending the relevance of Marxian sociological tradition, I have argued that the Left in India is intellectually bankrupt (perhaps with the exception of a few figures like Sitaram Yechury, or Prakash Karat, to an extent) – the very idea of a Marxist political party (no matter how great a multi-party system we are – a fact that the early Left hated) is a contradiction-in-terms and an anathema. For instance, increasing corporate hegemony in the political sphere, or multinationals influencing foreign policies (aspects Guha didn't discuss in his lecture), or the threat to environmentalism (an idea he engaged with, in his book, This Fissured Land, with Madhav Gadgil) are issues that the Leftist scholars (with their Gramscian influence and turn to subaltern studies) have engaged with. I have, therefore, no apologies in arguing for a more academic grounding, or praxis, for Leftism in India. Guha, with that charming smile of his, attests my argument as a point for liberalism.
I’m not sure how much of a convincing argument I’ve made in this essay. In many ways, I am indebted to Guha for presenting a case of liberalism in a way that I hadn’t thought of before. What I will, undoubtedly, take back from my brief encounter with Ramachandra Guha (apart from a signed copy of Patriots and Partisans. Yes, I am gloating), is the memory of a rich and engaging discussion, which I believe constitutes another vital intellectual strand in my formative years.

Postscript & notes: 
Guha's book, Patriots and Partisans, in fact dedicates a chapter in discussing the problems with the Indian political Left, and what it could have done to have made a more lasting contribution of the multiparty, democratic process in India - a fact I came across later, as I read through the book. However, in my arguing more a more academic praxis for the Left in India, I am slightly skeptical of the political Left's  partaking in the democratic process (partly, as they are still bound to various Communist ideologies). Perhaps, what we need is a robust intellectual tradition, informed by post-Marxian and Critical thought, primarily that of the Frankfurt School (apologies, for this is my bias and limited knowledge speaking), and that of the Subaltern Studies. For such a move could potentially converse with the kind of liberalism Guha argues for, and inform the nature of public discourse in the country; the first step among the many, if we are to partake in a Liberal Exercise.
For most of Ramachandra Guha’s statements, I have, to my best efforts, found citations wherever possible. Many of his statements in this essay, however, are quoted verbatim, as I noted them during his lectures at the Times Literary Carnival in Bandra, on 7th December 2012, and at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda, on 8th December 2012.