Protesters demanding justice or enemies of state?

Every time people asking for nothing more than justice or a semblance of governance pour on to the streets, why does the state lose no time in treating them as if they were infiltrators at the border? There is a reason why...


Ajay Singh | January 24, 2013

A scene of protest after the Delhi gangrape
A scene of protest after the Delhi gangrape

She looks like your friend’s mother, an elderly neighbour. If she were to be compared with a public personality, she looks like Gursharan Kaur, prime minister Manmohan Singh’s wife. In the iconic photograph that appeared in many newspapers, she is seen fallen down on the road near Raisina Hill, probably after a group of policemen pushed her, because they, too, are in the photograph, about to bring down their sticks on her again.

The point is, the woman with a motherly face and rest of the demonstrators, possibly her children and their friends, do not look the type who, if they were not stopped, would storm the seat of power up the hill. They are not Maoist guerrillas, after all, professing to overthrow the state.

Can’t those perched atop the Raisina Hill see them for what they are: unarmed peaceful demonstrators wanting to be heard on a critically pressing issue of women’s safety and then go home? Does Manmohan Singh or Sushilkumar Shinde see in this elderly woman and others barbarians at the gate?

But usually it is not a question of what this matronly woman looks like, or what the PM or the home minister perceives her to be. The equation usually boils down to a large number of people about to cross an invisible line, stepping across which is the ultimate affront on the state.

It is the line between the rulers and the subjects, between ‘we the people’ and ‘they the rulers’. Cross this line, and no time is lost before you become an enemy of the state. Defending this sacrosanct line is more important than defending even the international borders — or so it would appear every time people armed with nothing more than placards poured on to the streets. With utmost alacrity, the state comes down on its own people, though the same politicians would go to the same people begging for votes every few years.

Why so? For reasons of state. This cold logic of state is beyond that woman or, for that matter, beyond Shinde. There is no political leader in today’s India who has shown any inclination to act otherwise. The beast has nothing personal for one side or against the other.

The state, to maintain its might, and even legitimacy, has to be impersonal to an extent. A Nehru might have been an avowed pacifist in his personal life, and might indeed have turned the other cheek if slapped, but as prime minister he personified the state, which cannot turn the other cheek to an aggressive neighbour. It would be an exceptional ruler who can put his own persona above the personification of the state. The norm in fact is the other way round after Indira Gandhi: becoming the state personified and assuming exceptional powers is intoxicating.

What we have seen in Lutyens’ Delhi and elsewhere, during the Anna Hazare movement and after the December 16 gangrape, are displays of this state’s might, with an array of lathis, batons, teargas shells and water cannons.

As the young generation and a new middle-class show no signs of giving up its impatience with lack of governance, we are going to see more of the united colours of khaki in the days to come. Time, then, to know this beast better.

Reasons of state
The term ‘reasons of state’ gained coinage thanks to a 16th century priest, Giovanni Botero, who authored a book under that title in Italian (‘Ragion di Stato’). Botero was only summarising in that expression the advice Niccolo Machiavelli had given to the rulers in his all-time classic: Go ahead and rule effectively, use all the might if you have to and as for morality, don’t bother with trifles like that, you are the state after all.

Thus, a war need not be a just war, and the ruler can ask his soldiers to be barbaric. Why? For reasons of state. This logic then need not stop at external boundaries of a nation and if there’s an uprising, use all force at hand to clamp it down. Why? Not because the home minister is a fascist, but for reasons of state. The baton coming down on the woman in the photo is, unknown to the one wielding it or receiving its blow, an instrument serving reasons of the state.

Botero was to write at length what the reasons of state should rather be. He was the first but not the last to criticise Machiavellian politics as it became a norm around the world. A motley group came up whose cornerstone was nothing but attacking the might of the state. No wonder, the powerful state has reduced that group to such disrepute that if you call the demonstrators at India Gate anarchists, even they would take offence.

Among other critics of the reasons-of-state doctrine was the Russian pacifist of the first order, Leo Tolstoy, who went on to impress his ideas on a certain Indian activist writing letters to him from South Africa. No wonder Mahatma Gandhi was the proto-anarchist, wishing as humble a state as feasible in this world. His ideas, of course, went straight into archives the moment India won independence as his followers set down to the task of building a strong state.

Nothing personal about it
The logic of the state has to operate with the coldness of a computer programme. At one end, the ruler might be compassionate in his personal life, and at the other end the protester might be someone standing behind you on the queue at the milk booth in the morning, but the baton must not recognise either face. It is only an extension of this logic that if a ruler gets down from the chair (or a protester gets into it), the situation will not change.

Bahujan Samaj Party chief and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati would be a good example. She barely survived a brutal attack on her life at the state guesthouse in Lucknow on June 2, 1995. After she became chief minister the following day, one would have expected that the perpetrators would be punished. They have not been till date — in fact, the case is still at the trial stage. But Maya the CM is a different person here from Maya the hapless victim.

Memory lapses
Instead of Mayawati, it could also have been Nayeema, a 14-year-old girl who was abducted, battered, raped and killed in 1989 (see box). Though she made headlines then, today her memory has been successfully erased from collective consciousness while her tormentors had the last laugh because of insufficient evidence.

Nayeema’s memory has been reduced to oblivion for a reason — of the state, of course.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That is a famous quote from Czech novelist Milan Kundera, the most political of the past half century’s litterateurs, who said that with reference to the Soviet communist oppressions in east Europe. Churchill, a realist not easily given to hubris when it comes to dealing with history, was talking in the same vein when he retorted, “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.” He knew it from experience that history was the narrative of, by and for the powerful. The rest deserves to be forgotten. The Indian elite seems to have faithfully internalised this abiding principle of narrative writing.

Take, for example, the secrecy with which the Henderson Brooks report on Indo-China war of 1962 has been shrouded in secrecy for five decades. This is a secret zealously protected by the Indian elite irrespective of its political colour. The uncomfortable memory of 1962 needs to be erased.

Just as the state is engaged in keeping certain memories alive, it is also furiously busy erasing others with equal ease to perpetuate its hegemony in the mainstream narrative. What else would explain Mayawati’s drive to build memorials in her name all over UP, on which much has been written, and another drive, on which little is written, to erase the uncomfortable memories of incidents that helped her evolve as one of most powerful women politicians of the country?

This has been aptly summed up in a study conducted by the Allahabad-based GB Pant Institute of Social Studies. In the study, a team of researchers led by Badri Narayan analysed the response of the state and other institutions of society over the years in connection with three important cases that played significant roles in shaping UP politics in the 1990s. Its conclusion pointed to erasure of memory and oblivion.

This is being practised again in the case of the 23-year-old Delhi gangrape victim. She, too, seems headed the same way: away from state archives and finally away from public memory. Is it any wonder that the state, which did not bother to protect her, is now making all transparent efforts to protect her identity?

The power of naming – and not naming
The debate over revealing the victim’s name is instructive in this regard. The name was known to all those who matter to her family, and was published in newspapers of eastern UP even when she was alive. A British paper, too, named her in print, after speaking to her father. The legal stricture against publicising a rape victim’s name is to save her from stigma, but unfortunately she is no longer around to suffer stigma of a male-dominated society in which a rape victim is supposed to live in shame. Her family, too, wants her name publicised. Can her name be revealed now? Can she be now relieved of the anonymity not worthy of someone who woke up a nation? Can she be granted the dignity that she deserves as a brave-heart, so that her memory can live on among those who have taken inspiration from her?

No. Why? For reasons of state.

Thus, her name will remain an official secret and her funeral a top-secret affair.

But let us compare two recent funerals: this one in Delhi and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s in Mumbai late last year. Though he neither held the post of a political executive, like Indira Gandhi, for instance, nor could he claim the mantle of popular mass leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan or Vinoba Bhave, Thackeray was accorded a state funeral. Why were political executives of all hues and top national leaders seen paying obeisance to the man whose singular contribution to Indian politics was to lumpenise it? Despite Thackeray’s self-admitted role in provoking riots after the Babri mosque demolition, a cowering Congress government at the centre and the state accorded him the highest status reserved for high public figures after death.

Contrast that with the secrecy that shrouded the funeral of the Delhi rape victim. Her body was flown in from Singapore at an unearthly hour at the inaccessible-to-people technical area of the airport where the country’s top political leader, Sonia Gandhi, and top political executive, Manmohan Singh, were present. The family was reportedly coerced to perform the last rites of its beloved daughter in a most secretive manner under the constant and bullying presence of state authorities.

Does this case bear any similarity with the manner in which the US administration conducted the last rites of Osama bin Laden, or the execution and burial of Ajmal Kasab? Of course, it is nobody’s argument that the rape victim bears any similarity with those terrorists. Far from it. What needs to be critically looked at is the conduct of the elites and the state, which does not discriminate between common people and terrorists when its own existence is challenged.

The groundswell of emotions that the rape victim and her death generated had proved beyond doubt that there is hardly any leader in the existing political spectrum that could inspire people’s trust. This politically naive but highly assertive section of youngsters is not overawed either by lineage or stature of those assigned to govern us. This was reflected in the manner in which they knocked the door of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and laid siege to the ultimate seat of power, Raisina Hill.

It is often said that adversity brings out the best in a person. But in case of the Indian elite, it brings out the worst. The body of the rape victim became an instant source of all emotional outpouring that threatened the elite. The body of the victim was seen as a potential flashpoint which needed to be eliminated in order to ensure survival of those who are well entrenched in the power structure.  They gave a a new meaning to the term ‘body politic’.

There is hardly any doubt that the open cremation of the rape victim would have attracted a crowd which would have probably surpassed the attendance at funerals of many political leaders in recent times. The fear that such a large gathering could provoke a serious situation was constantly played up to deny people their right to grieve. Isn’t it strange that the government reposes more faith in Shiv Sainiks than those gathered at Jantar Mantar and Raisina Hill, chanting innocuous slogans like “we want justice”? This is indicative of the great divide between the ruling elite and citizenry. And the manner in which the funeral of the rape victim was blacked out by our pliant TV channels is a testimony to the usage of Machiavellian skills to curb a genuine struggle of people.

Co-opting state
The behaviour of the media brings us to the next characteristic of the beast. It is fine for the state to do whatever morally dubious activities it does in the name of national interest, but it does not end there. There is a top layer of the elite, the ruling class and its apologists in the intelligentsia, who too have dutifully internalised the cunning, secrecy and other essentials of statecraft. To put it another way, front-pages and prime-time TV are as much weapons of the state as batons and tear gas, only more lethal. The conduct of the media, barring honourable exceptions, has helped the state control the message as it wants.

When mobs shouted slogans like “khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Doordarshan, the only broadcaster at the time, dutifully showed this utterly provocative rendition, not to mention the assassinated prime minister’s funeral. Even at the cost of riots that followed in Delhi and elsewhere, claiming thousands of lives. But the gangrape victim’s funeral is obliterated even by the private, competing-for-TRP media. Was it going to trigger riots? Probably, and someone from a think-tank or the commentariat can work out a case to term further protests at Raisina Hill as riots. Then, it was no coincidence that the celebrated journalists who had discovered Bal Thackeray’s liberal traits and recalled how he invited them over beer or lunch were the ones who argued passionately why the gangrape victim’s name shouldn’t be revealed, and why her funeral had to be a hush-hush affair.

As Noam Chomsky (who, like Botero, has authored a book titled ‘For Reasons of State’) has demonstrated for the American media, large sections of the Indian media have crafted a code: being as much anti-establishment as possible — of course within the limits defined by the establishment. Yes, our TV channels followed the eyeballs, and hence the crowds, and thus gave impetus to the protests, but when the state reminded them of the limits, they obediently fell in line.

No coverage from Raisina Hill. Fine, thanks, anything else, sirs?

No coverage of the funeral. Your word is my command.

The manner in which the mainstream media acted in cahoots with the government and the Delhi Police would serve as a perfect example of a remark often attributed to Indira Gandhi about the conduct of the media during the emergency: “They were asked to bend but they started crawling.” What else can explain a TV anchor’s preference for the appellation ‘mobs’ for protesters — till he was admonished by CPM’s Brinda Karat?

The police, whose dubious conduct in the whole affair is not a secret, went overboard to protect the identity of the rape victim and zealously guarded the truth from coming out on the pretext of a law which prohibits revelation of identity in the larger interest of the victim. There is no doubt that the decree to protect the rape victim’s identity is guided by a pernicious social mind-set which attaches blemish to the victim rather than perpetrators of the crime.

Betrayed by the state
This rape-cum-murder case also exposed the abysmal failure of a contract of the state with the citizenry at every step of our routine life. For instance, the victim and her friend could not get safe public transport after waiting for hours. That the chartered bus bearing the moniker ‘Yadav’ was allowed to ply Delhi roads for hours in the night without valid papers is a testimony to a criminal nexus between the police and transporters. The victim’s trust in the state was completely betrayed even in the hospital, where she was subjected to ordeals of inquisition at the first instance instead of getting medical aid.

And despite theatrics employed by a section of the media, this was no fictionalised Bollywood story — neither of a “Nirbhaya” nor of any “Damini”, who either found a saviour in a celluloid hero or put up a fight of mythological proportions. She was violated and bruatalised; her “hero” was beaten badly; and then both were betrayed at every step by a collusive state which professes to protect its citizenry. Her desire to protect her identity was only guided by her instinct to survive. But she wanted to speak of every minute of her ordeal to give a perfect narrative of her betrayal by the state, the society and the elite.

That was why she asked for burning her tormentors alive in punishment.

Perhaps every minute of the lives of the victim and her friend since December 16 would confirm the state’s role as a criminal enterprise. Thus erasing their memory became the state’s first priority. Curiously enough, the mainstream media actively colluded with the state in this endeavour and blacked out coverage of the funeral.

Meanwhile, the fierceness with which Delhi Police is trying to guard the identity of the victim and her friend is no match for its efficiency in tackling the crime.

That is why the police were so shaken by the Zee News interview with the victim’s friend: his narrative of the events that dark night was in stark contrast to the myths woven around the victim by the state and a pliant media. The state’s hideous face was exposed and its efforts to keep the ghastly incident “faceless” blown to bits.

The police cases filed against newspapers and journalists for revealing the true story are a panic reaction of the state whose project to efface the memory of the Delhi rape victim and replace it with a convenient mythical narrative through mainstream outlets was suddenly grounded.

But no media outlet is asking one simple question: whose interest does it serve to hide her identity even after her death? It is only the state and its torch-bearers in the mainstream media which are keen obliterating the facts.

That’s one more characteristic of the state: turning inconvenient truths into fables and myths. That is the beast the woman in the photograph with her maternal expression of caring for fellow protesters has to contend with.



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