Experiments in state incarceration: an undeclared emergency

Introduction to India special section
by Jyotika Virdi

On August 5, 2019, the Indian state in a spectacular show of the ascendant right-wing party’s coercive power deployed the Indian army to place Kashmir’s citizens in a lockdown, suspended phone and internet services, arrested political leaders, and an estimated 4000 activists. Without local consultation Parliament foisted a new administrative structure and abrogated the statute (Article 370) preserving Kashmir’s special status, its condition of accession to India after the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. The state’s bifurcation eliminating its autonomy and placing it under the center’s dominion is now buried in constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. However, the public’s acquiescence sanctioning this move, even celebrating it in some quarters, signals a disquieting turn in the Indian polity against which the essays in this section assume significance.

Disregarding the irreconcilable, India continues claiming the status of the largest democracy, while the slide toward authoritarianism wins majoritarian consent. Politically mandated, increasingly repressive power, however complete, reveals fissures visible in cultural productions, that while under pressure, manifest nodes of resistance. As cultural spaces for critical appraisal are under assault in India and dissenting voices shrink or are hostage to social media trolling, the task of assaying culture assumes new urgency. The significance of the Indian media section is amplified by the current context, the contemporary political climate aligned to a pernicious rightward swing as in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the U.S. It enunciates the stakes in which Kashmir’s lockdown is both an emblem of the extent of coercive state power--and allegorizes its limits.  

In May 2019 three months before the unprecedented experiment with state-wide incarceration, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) swept to power with Narendra Modi’s re-election after his 2014 win. Months prior to the 2019 election an intelligence lapse resulted in the death of 40 security personnel in a terrorist attack in Kashmir. Ghoulishly turning this into an electoral gift, an albeit botched retaliatory air strike on Pakistan transformed national security into productive poll rhetoric, as did the project to document citizenship, seal northeastern borders against “infiltrators” and target Bangladeshi Muslim labor inflow, flagrantly referred to as “termites” in election speeches.  

In its previous term in office the BJP intensified the pitch on cultural nationalism, propelling Hindutva politics, i.e., mobilizing Hindu religious symbolism for political ends, resurrecting the holiness of cow protection. Flouting the rule of law around minority Muslims’ mob lynching, demanding citizenship proof in the northeastern border states of Assam to track immigrant Muslim labor from Bangladesh, it unabashedly channeled public debate into national-antinational polarity. Mobilizing cross-class support with an unsettling intensity, the Hindutva push back against liberal, inclusive, and pluralistic normative ideals raises questions about the new direction in India’s polity.

The sharply elevated shrillness in Indian public discourse is not sudden but has unfolded strategically in the national mainstream. In the 2014 election the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi, had effectively absolved himself from the damning but unproven taint of his involvement in Gujarat’s 2002 Muslim pogrom when he was the state’s Chief Minister (2001-2014). He ran his first national campaign on the rhetoric of development and inclusiveness. It was a bid for power after a ten-year hiatus, the BJP having won the center for the first time in 1999-2004, although the party has steadily expanded its footprint at state level governments and is in power or in coalition alliances ruling 20 of 28 states. With no traction for the first 35 years after independence the party grew rapidly in the mid-1980s expanding from 2 seats in 1984 to 86 in 1989. That the 1999-2004 regime that first took control at the center is now regarded its moderate phase gives pause. Will today’s Modi be judged as restrained as a more intemperate leadership in the wings takes the reins in future?

Much like Trump’s playbook, feeding the public’s appetite for one outrageous uproar to the next, political discourse in the last four years has relied on sending up trial balloons with each new outrage normalizing in mainstream discourse what was once unacceptable and relegated to the lunatic fringe. The BJP’s systematic discursive campaign and realpolitik embed a virulence bereft of any moral compass: braggarts circulate social media videos of lynching Muslims filmed on cell phones like trophies, senior politicians honor mob members convicted in lynching, an elected member of parliament deifies Mohandas Gandhi’s murderer (decrying Gandhi’s pacifist Hinduism), rape-accused politicians circumvent the law, unleash violence on rape-victims and their families, and the party has mounted a renewed offensive on human rights, environment, and non-profit organization activists with trumped up charges.

The discursive battles over political grand-narratives and the nation’s vision are fought in education, jurisprudence, and of course, the sites of cultural productions encompassing film and media. It has seized traditional and new media—print, television, digital, and social—as well as education, and various professional, state and quasi-state research bodies, where arriving at a middle-ground among the “intelligentsia,” the literati, is becoming increasingly impossible. In 2015 a wave of artists, filmmakers, scientists, and writers returned prestigious state awards protesting the government’s inertia toward escalating lynching of Muslims, followed in 2017 by 65 high-level retired bureaucrats’ open letter against unrestrained vigilantism, and in 2019 a similar appeal was made by well-known filmmakers. Each time swift retaliation from groups mobilized within the same constituency emerge defending the right-wing agenda, deflecting critique in partisan “whataboutery,” falsely claiming the absence of protests against similar crimes on the Congress party’s watch in the past 60 years. The struggle to rein in intellectual spaces has extended to appointments in research bodies, favoring loyalty over academic credentials, and most recently created a stir over the attempt to withdraw nominal privileges of a reputed Emerita of ancient Indian history. Social scientists, heads of high-profile professional bodies have resigned over suppressing information inconvenient to the regime. For instance, in 2018 the chair and two members of the National Statistical Commission quit because bad economic news was concealed.

Education, under state (provincial) jurisdiction, turned school textbooks on history into an embattled arena that in 2014 shifted to universities operating under central state authority. Student protests centered on Dalit and gender issues, free speech, administrative appointments and control through interference in research bodies have manifested in long drawn and very public stand-offs at several premier higher education institutions like Banaras Hindu University, The Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, Hyderabad University, Jadavpur University in Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

In the media world journalists, cartoonists, activists, and media personnel not falling in line with the government’s agenda are contending with an unusual level of challenges, from defamation suits to arrests, intensifying the ideological contestation. In 2018 a fictionalized historical extravaganza, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s originally titled Padmavati’s film set was targeted by vigilante violence, a bounty placed on the director and star Deepika Padukone, and the Film Certification Board’s approval was contested. To mollify the vigilantes the film’s title was changed to Padmavat, underscoring the film’s creative source material, a 16th century poet’s imaginative rendering of a 14th century narrative, Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s desire for a Hindu queen Padmavati. Nonetheless, several states unwilling to guarantee theater security banned the film. Writers and producers confess the chilling impact the episode will have on self-censorship in the industry.

The surrender however is not complete. Netflix and Amazon Prime series, most recently Deepa Mehta’s Leila, about a dystopian future Hindutva state, kicked off controversies the state machinery is powerless to control. Transnational media platforms beyond the state’s coercive reach do not, however, stop heckling troll armies from going on the offensive, their furor circulating in a loop between social and traditional media, seizing attention on nightly prime-time television debates. Nothing irks the ruling dispensation and its troll armies more than the international media’s escape from its reach, its inability to extend the Kashmir-style lockdown on intellectual and cultural workers. Reactions oscillate between celebrating attention from the international press, notably, The New York Times and The Washington Post and derision when the op-eds are negative. While domestic spaces for cultural critique are vulnerable to political victimization under the confused set of Internet regulations putatively balancing free and hate speech, materials on platforms beyond its jurisdiction become relatively safe and potent spaces for critique.

The essays in the Indian media section of this issue examine discursive contestations in documentary and fictional films, cutting across mainstream-alternative and Hindi-regional cinemas. They examine the ideological skirmishes marking the rapid transformation India has undergone under the sign of neoliberalism and must be read against the accompanying intensified cultural nationalism dominating the zeitgeist. The authors track resistance through figurations of religious minorities, class, gender, and caste subjected to contradictory pulls of aspirations shaped by globalized market forces and hoary traditionalism. Mallika Khanna creatively defines the “feminist gaze” to investigate the commodification of feminism for aspirational bourgeoise Indian women, which recent Hindi films have embraced under neoliberalism. Eswaran Swarnavel’s essay examines the overlooked Tamil art cinema oeuvre, taking up two recent films. He plots the topography of caste politics against control over real estate whether rental property or the public commons to access burial land. (Speaking directly to his essay is a case of life imitating art in August 2019, a viral video showed a Dalit funeral procession lowering the dead body from a bridge to circumvent access denied to the cremation ground). In Tanushree Ghosh’s nuanced essay Vidya Balan’s persona in conjunction with her acclaimed film performances are evaluated for the tension in her star-text. Ghosh navigates the conventional tropes burdening women’s representations in the tradition-modernity complex. Leading the section is Jyotsna Kapur’s review of radical documentarian Anand Patwardhan’s four-hour film, by far his most ambitious undertaking, Reason/Vivek (2018). It speaks to the violent turn the struggle for hegemony of intellectual ideas has taken that this introduction sketches.