Grief manifested in ways that felt like anything but grief; grief obliterated all feelings but grief, grief made a twin wear the same shirt for days on end to preserve the morning on which the dead were still living; grief made a twin peel stars off the ceiling and lie in bed with the glowing points adhered to fingertips; grief was bad-tempered, grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself; grief saw every speck of pain in the world…
-Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
A token execution is a spectral rumour in the air. It traumatizes subjects and hampers the emergence of subalterns, since they would be ‘taught’ a lesson. Universities and institutions that set the agenda of pedagogy all become part of this ‘teaching’ enterprise.
Indian ideology is suffused with a compulsion to create meaning by any means. In the density of Gods, humanity suffers. The intention to teach (learn would be the intransitive) a lesson is a major temptation of the right wing. The punishment and suffering of the minorities, once visible outside their bodies is the objective locus of the right.
The women of Shaheen Bagh, who started their Antigone-like protest of sheer drive, refused to cede ground to the threats of violence, and their movement soon spread to other parts of the country, rousing the public imagination. On 26 January, 2020 they celebrated the 71st Republic Day of India. Antigone, is an exemplar of the female drive, which refutes injustice and rejects all compromises. In the milieu of unjust encounters and persecution, the Antigone like emergence of the ethical stance of Muslim women has turned a major thorn in the side for the powers that be.
Ironically, the desire-driven agenda of Hindutva has also been remoulded into a monastic drive with monkish wannabes leading the circus. The dreams of infinite aggrandizement in expansionist mode have been tempered, if not by realpolitik, then by the exigencies of global ecological imperatives and crisis economy that hampers scale.
The narratives woven around the disembowelling of an expecting mother was the cause of much trauma in the Gujarat riots scenario. How the minorities form sexual unions and procreate in the shadow of such narratives is a fraught issue, one that invites even more spinning from the mill in the form of token neo-Antigone narratives that promise swift punishment for amorous transgressions. The sovereign is the one with the power over life. That has to be asserted from time to time if the power edifice itself is not to be sacrificed.
Like the human sacrifices that were performed to save the celestial bodies in lustrous orbit, there has to be a token sacrifice once in a while to maintain the status quo. But just as the link between the sacrifice and the constellations is virtual, there is nothing binding the punishment to the lesson.
The punishment, impalement, disembowelling, execution etc take place in another realm altogether from the pedagogical dimension of said events. The desire of a primordial organic commune has been sacrificed in the altar of the relentless drive of monastic violence. The entire story of the political history of India in the recent past has been the transformation of this desire into the drive of karmic brutality. It is in this context that the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek would quip:’don’t act, just think’. Zizek for instance gives the example of the cartoon characters from Tom and Jerry where Tom for instance would be hanging over a precipice as if in suspension when he woul suddenly look down and succumb to the inevitable gravity. The relentless drive of the right is but one step away from its abyss. The token execution would be the inducer of that event.
A young woman of sixteen or seventeen, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, hanged herself in her father’s modest apartment in North Calcutta in 1926. The suicide was a puzzle since, as Bhuvaneswari was menstruating at the time, it was clearly not a case of illucit pregnancy. Nearly a decade later, it was discovered that she was a member of one of the many groups involved in the armed struggle for Indian independence. She had finally been entrusted with a political assassination. Unable to confront the task and yet aware of the practical need for trust, she killed herself. Bhuvaneswari had known that her death would be diagnosed as the outcome of illegitimate passion. She had therefore waited for the onset of menstruation. While waiting, Bhuvaneswari, the brahmacrini who was no doubt looking forward to good wifehood, perhaps rewrote the social text of sati -suicide in an interventionist way.
-Gayatri Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak
The desire, love and such human emotions have been rendered too costly by the precarious circumstances of the present day world. In the furnace of oppression and microbial sovereignty, human desires, romance and finer feelings have been modified into the monkish drive of compulsion. So much is evinced by movies such as ‘Badlapur’ which is perhaps the quintessential movie of the right wing era. The relentless drive to take revenge clashes with the Antigone-like female quest for justice. In this milieu, a confrontation becomes inevitable. Victory will be pyrrhic.
The ideological valences of Karmic brutality are there for everyone to see in the form of lynching, cyber bullying , molestations, and murders. In the USA, the Antigone-like intense confrontation took on the hues of sexual justice with the likes of Weinstein biting dust. That the same would take colours in India is only a foregone conclusion.
The circular willing movements of love and devotion and Bhakti find altered linear expression as drives. The Bhakti devotion of unquestioning fealty has turned into a karmic drive of compulsive repetition. This mechanical movement, in the age of the digital post-human spectre of AI, if harnessed can acquire gargantuan proportions and destroy even the remaining vestiges of the millennial work of reform. The desire for revenge has been metamorphosed into the pure drive of hatred. There is no organic core to the empty machine of mechanical hatred.
(The psychoanalytical firmament, Salman Akhtar or Sudhir Kakar, have mostly observed a studied silence over the issue. Ashish Nandy made the colossal gaffe of commenting that the system would never allow a deleterious ascension.)
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.
–George Orwell, A Hanging
Umar Nizar is a research scholar in JNU.