National Blame-Games

Does physical proximity to media headquarters, dictate the “national” credentials of a tragedy?

ByAnand Vardhan
National Blame-Games
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It’s 2.40 pm, December 30, 2012 (Sunday). A few paces down the Bandra station, onlookers are giggling at, and some even clicking pictures of, the “performers”.  A group of youngsters, and some not-so-young activists, are flashing placards and banners which have the usual platitudes of protest and outrage entrenched in the demonstration vocabulary of the English-speaking class – “We Want Justice”, “Down with Inaction” “Death for Rapists”, etc.

The protesting group perhaps needed their own “types” to work up a crescendo, alien as they seemed amid a curious crowd unware of what they are protesting against and asking for clues to decode the attractive placards and orchestrated anger. “Anger”, when orchestrated, finds ways of looking like a spectacle.

Some copies of Mumbai’s Sunday dailies are also doubling up as placards in some angry hands. With its black front page as a protest statement, the Sunday Mid Day seemed popular, closely followed by front pages of Sunday Times of India, DNA Sunday and Sunday Express. With their readership centred around the English-placard holding class, it is no wonder that the dailies had the same punching bag – the state.

So the liberal English press has come full circle – from advocating the “rollback of state” from every possible sphere of “public functioning” as a prerequisite of economic liberalisation, to blaming the absence of state machinery for all middle class woes. In a way, it is rallying against the dysfunctional “police state”, an expression which Herbert Spencer used for the role that a laissez faire society assigns to the state. It’s the agenda for the minimalist state – to protect life and property of the stakeholders (citizens), and to do nothing else. It’s an agenda which suits the requirements of capitalist enterprise and privilege as well as middle-class prosperity and aspirations. The outsourcing of security to the coercive public entity which has monopoly over violence – the state.

The leap of faith has its own share of irony. From sniggering at state presence (leave alone state control) in large areas of public engagement, the media seems to have aligned with the naivette and dumbed down the worldview of its core consumers who are keen to blame the state for all acts of barbarity and instances of human beings gone savage, as with heinous crimes like a rape or a murder. In terms of the social contract theory of state (remember Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau), it is tantamount to asking the security contractualist what went wrong with the “security contract”.

Is it realistic to hold the state accountable for every single act of crime or violence in a society which has been witnessing an insidious rise in how individualities and collectivities are violently expressing themselves? Beyond the polemics of high-decibel protests, do we seriously think that the state could have prevented all the acts of barbarity against women in this country? The shift of gear from “minimalist state” to Hegelian description of state as “march of God on earth” raises more questions about the tone and tenor of the protests than about the “state complicity” in recent horrors.

Always keen on clinching moments of hysteria, media houses have fuelled a weird understanding of democratic citizenship, where state-bashing has been the ritual performed by the non-voting classes keen on placing bid for democratic stakeholding. Apart from the cathartic act of redeeming a cocooned existence, it has become a desperate act of having a “participatory” feel.

In one of the better pieces of analysis of the current outrage which have been published recently, Manu Joseph has sought to dissect the social configuration and the polemical architecture of the protests. In a piece published in the latest issue of Open, he incisively observes:

“On Christmas afternoon, there were about 300 people on a 100 metre stretch of road near Jantar Mantar, where the Government had allowed protestors to gather. For every eight males here, there were two females. The protestors had divided themselves into small groups and the division was ordained by social backgrounds. The best dressed was a collegiate group that formed a ring and shouted slogans at each other. Is this another consequence of Facebook – people who agree with each other talking for hours with each other in a nook about the things they agree on? A boy rises and proposes what everybody has been proposing in different ways – ‘The rapists should be chemically castrated and then hanged.’ One boy in the outer rings whispers to another, asking what ‘castrated’ means, and upon finding the meaning, fully supports the proposal.

Far from them is a larger group, which looks less affluent and draws several gawking onlookers. They do not speak English, but their slogan is in English – “We want justice.” A woman is trying to get the slogan-shouting going, but a man in a fur cap keeps giving short speeches in Hindi. He finally leaves in a huff when his voice is drowned by the English slogans. As he leaves he scolds them for speaking in English.”

What is also bewildering is how the protest and the mourning went “national”. How do we define “national”? How does a tragedy and a heinous crime acquire national proportions? Would a girl raped and killed in Gorakhpur/Munger or Coimbatore/ Hisar (towns in their own rights, leave alone the rural hinterland surrounding them) evoke a similar response? Are not they entitled to be a part of the “national” imagination of protest marches, dharnas and media polemics? Is physical proximity (in terms of distance) to media headquarters, hub of activists and NGOs and an army of click-happy demonstrators dictating the “national” credentials of an issue/event/ tragedy?

In sombre moments of human disgrace and horror which such heinous crimes evoke, it’s ironic how absurdity still can find its way in responses to it. It’s difficult to look at the mechanics of the protest and “national” mourning and the accompanying media narrative, without the lens of absurdity. In situations as in responses, absurdity is also universal. Is the state to be blamed for that?

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