By Aurighno Gupto:
In a response to Eric Voeglin’s criticism of ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, Hannah Arendt made an astute observation on the lack of proper scholarship on anti-semitism. She wrote:
‘The reason why this whole literature is so extraordinarily poor in terms of scholarship is that the historians […] had to write the history of a subject which they did not want to conserve; they had to write in a destructive way and to write history for the purposes of destruction is somehow a contradiction in terms.’
Arendt’s reflections are worth thinking over in the context of the current discourse on free speech and activism. As we stand a little overwhelmed by the literature on extremities, such as shooting and stabbing of artists, banning of documentaries and lynching of suspected criminals, many fundamental questions remain unanswered about the reactive discourses.
In this article, I wish to present self-reflexive criticism along with Arendt’s suggestion as ways of engaging in the dialogue about such discourses. I will discuss the public lynching at Dimapur and present an alternate, albeit provocative, viewpoint. The aim would be to look at these issues with indignation, yet engage in a critique that is not aimed primarily at destroying the object of critique.
The choice of writing on the Dimapur incident arose from the nature of the reactions garnered by the event. It appears, from a cursory reading, that the incident at Dimapur was either looked upon as a spontaneous act of vigilantism, or as an abhorrent act, which is not worthy of being placed along the progressive steps taken, if any, after the December 2012 movement. Few have contextualized it along the lines of the contemporary regional politics. The point of this article is also to critique the ‘contemporaenity’ of discourses; an assumption that a current event is only explicable within familiar temporality.
Let us, then, consider the elements of the crisis. The mob gathered in large numbers. They broke in, hunted him down, overwhelmed the police, and paraded the victim before killing him. The behaviour of the mob suggests, right from its inception, that the act was a conscious one, and the plan kept rolling as the act unfolded.
From the various reports and commentaries, it appears that the killing was an enactment – of a hunt. It was meant to be a spectacle; this is particularly reflected in the choice of a public space for carrying it out and the choice of using digital media for recording it.
When it becomes a question of choice, it follows that there is an end goal of such acts. If seen closely, the end was neither just a spontaneous outburst of anger, nor was it only a release of the built up ethnic or communal pressures in the region. The choice of a public space transformed the act from a mere outburst to a ritual performance of a hunt.
Why a hunt?
The anthropological readings of ‘hunt’ suggest that elements of vigour, exuberance, and power are displayed along with the act of killing. The act of killing is always a secondary act, which is preceded by exuberant preparations for the ritual murder. A very similar explanation is given for the ‘act of war’ as an act of performance that is different from the war itself. It is because of the assertion of all of these in the act of killing that makes this mass performance a hunt. It will also be explained how the abstraction of power by the state leads communities to perform a spectacular act of resistance.
In the Dimapur incident, the public space became an area where multiple authorities, such as – patriarchy and sovereignty – were contesting for dominance. In other words right from the beginning, the purpose of the performance was supra-legal, and it would be extremely faulty to single out the spontaneity of it. The act of breaking the doors of the prison circumvented the legal authority, and created a different sphere of authority – a separate realm – if one may call it that.
This realm is different from vigilantism. Vigilantism involves taking the law into one’s own hand.
The lynching involved falling back on the traditional forms of legality. It is important to state that this is not suggesting that a community was asserting a pre-modern identity by any means; this is merely a critique of the modern forms of legality. One is reminded of the description – by Clifford Geertz in the book Negara: The Theatre State in 19th Century Bali – of a certain chief in Bali walking out unarmed with his family to face the Dutch guns in the battlefield. It was not an act of submission. It was an act of performance aimed at asserting the sovereign pre-modern space, which was about to be violently displaced by the modern space.
The modern colonial (and post-colonial) state is marked by its monopoly in the sphere of violence and revenue collection, amongst other things. Along similar lines, one is reminded of the increase in human sacrifice practiced by the Konds in central India, right when human sacrifice was banned by the colonial state. The increase in this incident was precisely because their sphere of authority was forcibly broken down by an interventionist state with different notions of legality, progress, and morality.
It is with the modern forms of authority that push legality through AFSPA in the North East which necessitates such performative acts to arrive as a mode of resistance. The terms – barbaric and the vigilante – have been created by the modern structure of authority. The state, in the North-East, in Ananya Vajpeyi’s words ‘neither wins nor loses’, but the people are defeated daily.
Let us briefly consider the precedents of resistance and the role of performance in them. Mass actions often rely on behaviours that are rational only to the participants. These acts of performances appear to be completely bizarre to a layman, such as a certain community (Xhosa) in colonial South Africa which killed its cattle to fight the British state, or the stripping of Manipuri mothers in Imphal in 2004 to protest against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. They may be situated in very different contexts, but they reveal the relationship between the state and the people.
It is the semiotics of these which creates a separate realm of contestation against an authority that cannot be fought on equal terms. There is a political element embedded in them. Therefore, communities or masses have a different sense of rationality of their acts, which manifested in a spectacular performance of a ritual murder in this case. Whether these are morally, ethically, or legally right is not of relevance. The argument here is of a rational choice implicit in the otherwise assumed lumpen and demonized masses. In Sanjib Baruah’s words, ‘One has to consider the pleasures of agency’, while reading what he calls ‘war discourses’.
This particular performance was aimed as a spectacle for the state, and a visibly political one at that. This was unique, and I will present the second argument here. As Albert Camus argues on the spectacle of the death penalty in Reflections of Guillotine, the death penalty is only prolonged because it is carried out in private, and because public executions would evoke widespread condemnation and disturbance.
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which is widely read in this context, also puts forward the idea of reforms in penal regimes of the modern state and exposes what would otherwise remain hidden from the visible world. Power is intimidated by spectacle. Then, it is worth considering that the point of a public space here was a complete antithesis of what the state carries out in hanging/executing convicts. This was meant to attract attention, as an act of self assertion. This was also aimed at breaking down the monopoly of the state in the sphere of death penalty.
State’s monopoly of violence has pushed certain communities to the periphery of the legal space – into a space of extra legality as a consequence of the transformation of the non state spaces into state space. This extra legal zone is where mass murders and rapes cannot even be brought into a legal framework. Therefore, it is not very surprising that this reaction was exercised in a peripheral legal space through an act of extra legality. This sets apart this act from the other acts of lynching in terms of its contextual rationality.
As was suggested, this article was meant to present a given case along somewhat different lines from the ongoing discourse. In no way does it serve to justify sacrifice, killing, or lynching. But where do we stand, if all that emerges out of the dialogues are mere binaries of reflection? Again, using Hannah Arendt’s ideas, how far do we succeed in writing about an act with indignation, yet be able to contextualize and read for and against the grain at the same time?