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Reflections on the terrorisms of our time

by Shiv Visvanathan, 1 February 2009

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Seminar, January 2009

Terror creates strange conundrums. When it strikes, it stops time and stupefies the storyteller. It freezes time by making everyday acts irrelevant. Terror demands a ferocity of focused attention, bawling like a monster child for an immediate response. In fact, its demands are almost coquettish – insisting on this and refusing that, threatening to ruthlessly terminate the relationship if the blandishments are not right. In terms of action, it demands reflexes which are immediate, trained, coordinated, but in terms of thought, it demands a quietness of reflection. Terror freezes thought. Instead of horror, we respond with hysteria. Instead of coherence, we seek to mimic its action, producing incoherence, a jaggedness of narratives that would intrigue any psychiatrist. This essay is organized in three segments. The first opens with the opera of Hindu Terrorism, the second with the media during the Mumbai terror and the third deals with the middle class attitudes to terror.

Terror is a particular form of violence, combining the most intimate and the impersonal. Its choices are random yet logical. It seduces the victim and the witness into a complicity of narratives and behaviour. Yet the victim glorifies terror and terrorist. Consider for example, the media’s celebration of ‘The Hindu Terrorist’. Savour the word. The years of nationalism taught us that the phrase ‘Hindu Terrorist’ was an oxymoron.

Ours was a peaceful experiment in nationalism. At one level, it seemed to conform to British stereotypes, where the colonizer saw the Muslim as masculine and muscular and the Hindu as weak and passive. But our peaceful nationalism was not a passive one. Because of his experience as an ambulance man during the Boer War and his encounters with South African racism, Gandhi had a better sense of the nature of violence than either Jinnah or Savarkar.

There were always advocates of violence in the national movement. There was Subhash Chandra Bose and the Azad Hind movement, but part of their myth and magic lay in the facts that were violence in potential. There were a few ‘terrorists’, but these men from Khudiram Bose to Bagha Jatin were not terrorists in the modern sense. They were assassins ready to attack persons in power and were particular about the targets. They often targeted cops or governors and missed with stunning frequency, creating a scandal rather than a tragedy. It is true that many political activists learnt to make bombs in impromptu home science classes but on the whole the British intelligence had a measure of them. We had myths of violence going back to Bankim’s Anand Math but fortunately this unhappy consciousness lost out to Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi.

Yet the week before Mumbai, all media was talking Hindu terrorism, suggesting that Hindu terrorism was an idea whose time had come, and what a coming. There was something operatic and fragmented about it, like a cameo role in a forgotten movie. It was Hindu in its invocation of asceticism, in the inflated presence of the sadhvi and even in her father’s defence of her. This gentleman seemed to see terror as another ayurvedic potion, promising efficacy in everyday practice. The sadhvi was projected in larger than life hoardings as a teenage cutout in saffron. She refused to answer questions in jail and was reported to be reading the Gita. There was a nostalgia of invocation of the past, of RSS shakhas, of the violence of Bhagat Singh, Savarkar and Madan Lal Dhingra. However, these figures appeared like tired footnotes from the past. The official affirmation of the Shiv Sena Chief, Bal Thackeray, only served to banalize her, a certification that added to her notoriety. However, for the BJP, ever short of ideas, she was a sentimentality to the army connection of a few marginal officers, linking to her because they were tired of the top brass and politicians.

Yet the event was not yet sufficiently symbolic. It seemed like a knee-jerk skit, a teenage costume ball playing at terrorism. It was almost ethological, like the behaviour of cornered animals baring fangs as a last line of defence. It seemed an idiot act of role-playing rather than a planned act of terrorism, whose amateurism was to emerge when confronted with the events of the coming week. Yet it was an early warning in the way media warmed up to it, convinced of the reality of Hindu terrorism, ready to turn an oxymoron into self-fulfilling prophecy. The sociological wisdom of the latter process is lethal and all that it simply and efficiently states is that ‘when people define a thing as real, the consequence also become tangibly real.’

The sadhvi phenomenon had shades of Anand Math. Let us be clear as a meditation on violence, it is illiterate even if attractive. Anand Math as a text on violence is no match for the nuances of the Mahabharata. The asceticism and renunciation it advocates has no direction, as the violence it advocates can be directed at anyone. Years before, Tagore had warned against its immaturity and his wisdom becomes more apparent as we confront a pale operatic imitation of it. Yet we must confront the question: what would make Hindu terrorism possible? We must ask not just what are the conditions of its possibility but the grounds for its wider acceptance?

The dream of violence as a form of aggression, competitiveness and decisiveness has almost always nibbled at our political unconscious. Through the sixties and seventies of the 20th century, India was seen as a soft state in Gunnar Myrdal’s terms. Indians were portrayed as lacking the killer instinct. This was obvious especially in our sportsmen who lacked a finishing power, who preferred sportsmanship to bodyline, skill to raw power. Even the angry young man who emerged in the post-emergency years had a touch of softness. His violence was based on a sense of rejection, a need for justice. Our middle class saw democracy as an active space and our leaders looked at violence as a negation of politics. Both the Gandhian ethic and the Nehruvian spirit sustained this.

But two things changed in the last few decades. Democracy was seen as impotent in coping with violence. Second, our idea of the body altered not just in terms of desire and beauty but in terms of physical violence. The hybridization of the body and technology created a new space for violence. Our Rambos, who were once laughable, suddenly appeared believable. Once again, it was Bollywood that captured both processes.

There was once a time when the vamp created the space of the housewife and affirmed it. The vamp became obsolescent when a new generation saw the erotic and sexual as part of a woman’s everydayness. Similarly, the violence of the thug or dacoit was little match for the ruthlessness of the encounter specialist or the new six pack hero. Violence was no longer a property of criminality, but became a part of everyday problem solving.

The affirmation of violence in popular culture was still a matter of consumption. The middle class, in its majoritarian sense, was still a spectator of violence. Its celebration was an act of voyeurism. Whatever the level of domestic violence, the public space was still officially subject to the rule of law. Oddly, the rule of law itself became ironic as state terrorism became the norm – from Naxalbari to Khalistan. But for our majority, Gandhi’s non-violence or the Congress model of adjustment dominated over the cult of violence.

However, our notion of democracy altered subtly and the level of internal war increased considerably. Our democracy felt threatened by minorities and minorities in turn felt unable to cope with the deafness of majoritarianism. Our sense of majoritarian electoral democracy opened the floodgates to certain forms of terrorism. Both the majority and minority sought short cuts in politics. Muslim minorities driven by Islamic pride and Saudi money found terror an alternative to politics. But violence was still a minoritarian opportunity, not a majoritarian prerogative. Violence was an official expression of the state but not a representative expression of civil society.

Suddenly when one confronts Hindu terrorist groups how does one respond? Does one merely see it as an expression of an RSS ethos or does one trace a line from Anand Math and Subhash Bose to the BJP and the sadhvi? What is disconcerting about it? There was first the media valorization of the act where our terrorists were presented like born again Palestinians. Violence was presented as a uthentic and courageous, as a return to the source. The sadhvi was projected as a Joan of Arc and a Leila Khalid and as part of the Hindu ethos. Her violence evoked asceticism and renunciation. It was as if Anand Math had triumphed over Sabarmati Ashram.

For me, Hindu terrorism is still a signal and a symptom rather than a full-fledged symbolic system. It is like a cameo role in a still democratic cinematic universe. It is seductive and it is built to be seductive. The script is perfect. It evokes the patriotism of the soldier distressed by softness of politicians and the ascetic discipline of shakha’s, evoking in turn the recessive terrorism of Indian nationalism. It is a statement that parts of the middle class are tired of being seen as effete and effeminate. It is the same segment that celebrates the encounter specialist as a ready-made answer to ready-made questions.

Hindu violence, in its genocidal form, expressed in itself 1984 and 2002, but Hindu terrorism is still a hypothesis in the making. What we have are its operatic elements with the shrewd sense that the operatic is never real. It is a fringe politics sustained by a part of the media that is equally seduced by power and is contemptuous of powerlessness.

It is a new brand authenticity endorsed by the Shiv Sena and the VHP. It is also supported by a middle class who sees in it a machismo with deep religious roots. It is precisely such a phenomenon that Tagore warned about, suggesting that the operas of Anand Math and Madan Lal Dhingra are always with us, ready to revive when a nation feels effete and impotent. It is a revivalist myth that finds easy endorsement. Yet it was a mere collection of stage props that never became full theatre. It is deeply kitsch, an exhibition rooted in a false memory. The entire act is presented like a commemorative stamp, a souvenir, a skit. The danger comes from considering it as real and also representative of Hinduism. It is a statement of a possibility, recessive but always residually present. It is an early warning signal that needs to be recognized, not endorsed.

What democracy instead needs to do is to see it as bad mimicry and search for a wider diversity of messages. A secular constitution and pluralistic unsemiticized Hinduism open to syncretism is the pragmatic answer to this still operatic form of terror. Seen as such, read as such, confronted as such, it will remain a recessive strain. But if encouraged by the growing middle class as an antidote for its inferiorities, Hindu terrorism may change from an oxymoron to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, majoritarian democracy is replete with such ironies.

Such were the thoughts and debates in the week before Mumbai, when a group of young men beached at the Gateway of India in rubber dinghies and walked in like old habitués into the Taj Colaba. Terror now challenged Indian democracy in a different way.

That was first the immediacy of the response to the terrorist holed in the hotels. But almost as significant was the media response to the event. The coverage was intense, continuous and tiring. A generation of younger TV broadcasters became narrators, middlemen between the event and the country. As commentators, they became part of folklore, but as narratives meditating on the event, the script was impoverished. What warped it was the continuous reportage, an unceasing onslaught on the senses which demanded a prolonged vigil but gave no time for mourning or shock. There was no moment for silence, a silence that also speaks, reflects, reacts to the horror. Horror needs punctuation marks, spaces for distancing, for quieter reflection. But when narrative becomes a roller-coaster ride, hysteria overrides horror.

The silences that carve horror into a moment of memory, labelling it as unique and singular, gave way to hysteria which is indiscriminate. In hysteria, narrative loses its ethics of scale with all fragments becoming indifferently equal. Rumour, gossip, fact, number, biography, cause, connection all get woven into a mad chain of being that we call reportage. It is a herculean effort but herculean only as effort. The muses abandoned TV during the battle of Bombay. What one confronted was repetition and repetition is seen to add to value. When one paused to look at fragments, one quickly sensed the trivial. It was not just trivia; it was the sense that the drama revealed the triteness of the participants. These were the best and brightest caught in a hotel and yet all they displayed was a domestic triteness, a banality. No wonder page three and page one merged so seamlessly.

There was no ritual of courage or leadership. As a wag put it: ‘Our elite got kicked in its balls to reveal it had none.’ Read the diaries and you begin asking whether it a failure of literacy or a lack of feeling that produces such self-obsessive drafts. To it, we have to add the phenomenon of narcissism by absence. This refers to the many starlets, executives, socialites who missed the event by a few minutes and behaved like also-rans in a public contest.

The ultimate distortion was the search for equivalence, the obsessive search for parity between Mumbai and 9/11. 9/11 was unique in that it showed that America was vulnerable at home, as vulnerable as all the towns and people it had bombed with imperious immunity. 9/11 literally brought home to America the meaning of terror. 9/11 transformed the terrorist from an alien other to another professional at home in America and as professional as many Americans. The terrorist was possibly more cosmopolitan than the average American, definitely bicultural and certainly multilingual.

For India, on the other hand, violence was not new. It was part of a continuous chain of being we call terror, a serial event moving across the cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. To claim equivalence with 9/11 might have been a claim to the fellowship of suffering, but the sociologies were startling different. To create equivalence was to falsify a story and force it into a procrustean frame, to coerce it to follow the logic of particular interests. 9/11 is the bell that turns every country into a Pavlov’s dog salivating over the dreams of security, responding knee-jerk to a whole realm of issues. Nuance is the first casualty of security. But the behaviour of the media, like the Hindu terrorist, was only a manifestation of the middle class as an imagination.

I love the Indian middle class of which I am a passive part. When I see it in action, I feel I am watching a hall of mirrors which distorts bodies and actions, evoking a sense of laughter. Only my middle class is unable to laugh at itself. It considers itself seriously, both in an autobiographical and historical sense.

I remember with nostalgia that about the most earth-shaking things we could face was failure in exams. Failure ostracized us, condemning us to the dustbin of history and incompetence. To build insurance against personal failure, we created historical affinities. We affiliated with every Indian, here and abroad, who won a spelling bee, a beauty contest or was recognized for his scientific ability. The Sachins, the Visvanathan Anands, the Jeev Milkha Singhs embodied the broadest range of our middle class dreams.

They reflected an ideal but also reflected an attitude to an ideal. We were not really great achievers, we were spectators of great achievements. Let me rephrase that. We were great spectators of any achievement. We loved the state because it was a spectacle, even if it frequently disappointed us. We loved cricket and Bollywood because they were the great spectacles of our time. The culture of spectatorship was crucial to us. It was enjoyable and voyeuristic. Every man was expert and commentator on what he could not actually do. We were all experts on actions through inaction. We were the greatest of spectators.

Life was a charming bioscope to which we were happily glued, ready to pay to the see the same or something partly different. We participated in all the great revolutions as couch potatoes, content in the heroism of the other. It was a wonderful world of spectatorship and partisanship, of commentary as a hermeneutic. We were not really citizens, or clients or consumers, we were a civilization of spectators. As long as history occurred around us, we were content to watch. If we missed the original, there was always the assurance of the replay.

Two things became problematic for us: our idea of history and our notion of the spectacle and both are related to our sense of time. Our history was problematic because it was an ersatz enactment of the original. But hot history as yesterday’s newspaper, was just right and manageable. It erased the problem of memory and meaning because the press made reports identical. The whole middle class nation attended a great tutorial college on TV. Cozily the event was known by the tutor’s name, his/her idiosyncrasies remembered fondly. A cross- examination of a minister or officer was imitated and suddenly a whole nation played at foreign policy. Only the language was borrowed, the politics simplified, in fact, made simplistic. When terror struck Mumbai, the middle class performed the classic inversion. Politicians were treated as incompetent, politics became effete and what they counterposed to it was a professionalism represented by the impersonal competence and courage of cops and the NSG.

This raised the second issue. The spectator invaded the field to speed up the game. It was a temporary intrusion where one challenged not the rules of the game but scapegoated a category out of impatience. For a while, the spectator as chorus took over the field of play, acting as if he had taken control. It was a play within play, an addendum theatre that media orchestrated skilfully.

In fact, the media provided the text and context for middle class histrionics. An acute observer of media has observed that it was Rang de Basanti all over again. One was afraid that with bit of push it could have been A Wednesday, where Mr. Nobody, tired of corruption and incompetence, takes over and impressively calls the shots. The two movies are anticipatory codes which the middle class follows to structure action. It responds to history through Bollywood cameos.

This not only creates a false sense of history but a false sense of its historical role. A single term bridges the personal and collective and officializes every citizen. That word is security. Security is an embracing term. It unites its followers under the umbrella of expertise, while recognizing some are more expert than others. It provides a ready-made lingua franca for governance, either through textbook fragments of retired officials or hostile interrogation by TV commentators.

I am not worried about genetic cloning; it is the cloned Arnabs and Barkhas stalking the streets that worries me, for while the imitations were flattering, they emphasized the superficial quality of the debate. Scapegoating, witch-hunting or creating the paranoid style of politics is the last thing media needs to do. To provide facts is crucial, but to substitute it with an echolalic barrage of questions adds little to the democratic debate.

What is created is not unity but a unified hysteria around the official. We don’t add to the safety and sustainability of the city, we merely securitize it, allowing state and market to eat away our rights, keeping these systems in place long after the event for which it was instituted has disappeared. It becomes a symbolic marker, a tourist mnemonic around which idiot theories of governance are built. It needs just one such event to create an internal arms race. Between the Naxalite concern and the Mumbai anxiety we can hypothecate our society for decades to the security experts. Sadly, the middle class does not see it as hypothecation; it celebrates it like a launching of a brand creating the qualities it values.

This brings us back to the failure of politics as an imagination. The genius of India lay in its most maligned process. It was an open-ended process which allowed for problem solving. But today politics is vilified as slow and contrasted with governance. Governance is seen as that cybernetic magic that guarantees security, territoriality, efficiency. The earlier politics was built around polysemic words that meant many things to many people. The new political semantics narrows life and politics in the name of professionalism. It demands toughness, quickness, decisiveness regardless of the content of the decision.

Between the terrorist and the middle class, democracy gradually becomes impoverished. Brand democracy is no match for democracy in real life. We fail to realize that security is not a quiz which has fixed answers. There is not just a loss of intelligence, there is a failure of memory. By treating Mumbai as our 9/11, we are creating a middle class marker which reveals a misunderstanding of India and USA as twin sufferers. It is a middle class sentimentality with devastating consequences. We need an old fashioned democracy.

Sadly both Bollywood and our media fail to understand this. For once our folklore and our popular culture have not been able to save us from the quickness that modernity and security demands of its subjects as it objectifies them.