The vigilante is watching

Print edition : October 30, 2015

BJP MLA Sangeet Som addresses residents of the Bisada village in Dadri on October 4. Photo: PTI

Somewhere along the way, somehow, anyhow, we are inveigled into becoming accomplices in the very actions or situations we might consciously and rationally oppose. We know we are being tracked and monitored, are being spied upon, and that every time we go online or use our credit card, aspects of our identity and personality are being snatched and stored in databases for possible use by the state or the market. We rail indignantly against this new surveillance society and yet are ourselves avid consumers of an infantile I-spy culture.

Reality television, the rage of the small screen, is about intruding into and parsing a person’s or a group’s behaviour or performance under simulated conditions of stress or competition. The gossip columns and their television equivalents are about what is salaciously private about the lives of the stars and movers and shakers. Peeping toms and the paparazzi, indiscriminate and voyeuristic sting journalism with surreptitious cameras, and keyhole journalism dying to find out what is going on behind closed doors—much of this has become routinely fetishistic and has nothing to do with the larger public interest—feed into a culture and media practice that normalises and monetises prying into the personal and the private of the other.

The media have primed and conditioned the middle class into internalising such, at times perverse, curiosity as part of its daily diet of information and entertainment. In this scheme of things, there is nothing wrong, or indiscreet, about being the fly on the wall. On the contrary that is the vantage point to aspire to, and what it reveals provides the most vicarious pleasure. Nothing is really none of your business any more in the candid-camera world of the media. This being so, it may appear out of character and unnecessarily fussy for us to complain about being, in turn, spied upon ourselves as part of the intelligence-gathering exertions of apex agencies, such as the United States’ National Security Agency, or the profit-making exercises of digital multinational capitalists, neither of whom cares two hoots about transgressing national boundaries or sovereignty in pursuit of its goals. There is a continuum from our cultivated appetite to pry to our becoming fair game for the priers.

There is a continuum of sorts too of prying for profit maximisation from the industrial society to the information society. We have the example of the Henry Ford car factory in Detroit representing the efficient height of the industrial revolution, where the supervisor, as the owner’s henchman, kept a sharp eye on the worker to ensure that he was being productive every minute of his workday on the factory floor. Such invigilation was part of the model of Fordist organisation and production as detailed by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. The monitoring extended beyond the workplace to the home of the worker, to ensure that he was not drinking too much or getting into domestic quarrels or tension in a manner that jeopardised his productivity potential at work.

Murdochism as an expression of digital capitalism is, if anything, more intrusive and violative of individual privacy in its business model. What is more, it indoctrinates us into (1) accepting surveillance as normal and even necessary in a world that is, partly in reality and largely paranoid imagination, terrorism-prone and (2) practising intrusive surveillance ourselves as a gaming device in and through the media so that it becomes part of our leisurely lifestyle. Intrusion into our privacy is insinuated into our minds as a legit practice that both protects and entertains us. It is the given, we are inured to it, so that it should not shock us when it is revealed that we are being surveilled or that our social habits and consumerist preferences are being monitored and processed for the algorithms to work out how to get us to buy this good or opt for that service.

It is like the generic merchandising that is the assumed in the run-of-the-mill, but widely watched, prime time television serials in many Indian languages. The dazzling clothes and abundant gold and diamond jewellery in which the characters in these soaps are decked out stick out incongruously, without any sense of appropriateness or relevance to the plot that hurtles along. Surely, no one is turned out like that in everyday situations at home. But these serials need to not only tell a predictable and commonplace tale.

They need, more importantly, to subliminally promote the appetite and aspiration for clothes and jewellery and all the consumer goods that go with people living in houses that befit those wearing such clothes and jewellery. It is an overture to the advertisers, who are the natural allies and promoters of such soaps. The Malayalam TV serial illustrates this type as few others do. The organic link between the small screen and the market is evident in the humungous sari and jewellery shops dotting the length of the State, which are rare even in the big metropolises of India.

Hindutva vigilantism

The current accelerated religious, cultural and social onslaught by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh seems designed to instil and install a mental conditioning of dos and don’ts that will be furiously promoted by the chauvinistic proponents of Hindutva so that it becomes the given which everyone must perforce internalise and follow, setting, to use an appropriately mythological figure of speech, a lakshman rekha that no one will cross for fear of the consequences. A newly emboldened vigilantism, spurred by the muscle flexing of the religious Right, sets a new threshold of intolerance. Its dastardly perpetrations become a fait accompli that the state establishment and political parties then appear to scatter to cope with. There is a clear pattern here. Democratic institutions of governance and the rule of law that, in the last instance, prop up the average citizen’s constitutional and democratic rights are given the go-by by vigilantes who decide how much freedom of expression or choice to live one’s life will be allowed. Censor boards can provide whatever certification they want. Whether films will run in the cinemas will be determined by these self-appointed moral brigades. Muslim outfits, too, are guilty of resorting to this street determination of the fate of films, publications or works of art.

And now, when Hindutva vigilantism, buttressed by majoritarian arrogance and the clout of political power at the Centre, becomes lethal and takes to physically exterminating those who oppose, obstruct or violate its narrow and distorted religious code, there is hell to pay. The legitimate custodians of law and order are reduced to picking up the pieces after every such strike and hardly seem to exercise any deterrent effect on these elements.

The shocking and disgusting lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in September by a mob that barged into his house because it suspected that he and his family had consumed beef is the latest in a series of such acts. The rhetoric on the Right about this cruel deed and the statements emerging from sundry BJP leaders have been shockingly insensitive, and deliberately and demeaningly deflective. Instead of unequivocally condemning the crime and bearing down on the criminals, the loftier leaders of the party have been hedging and hawing and, unbelievable as it is, couching their disapproval mainly in terms of how it would affect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to take India, like his travels, all over the place. The leaders at the lower level do not bother to go into such disconnect and seem to be eagerly seizing the moment to unleash a more unsparing religious campaign to liberate India from beef. In the melee, there is no pause, not a shred of contriteness, nor a moment of introspection. The tragedy of an innocent man being set upon and killed is fast turning into a farcical nightmare. The ante has been upped and the penalty bar of the Hindutva prohibitory code has been further raised. The killer squads and vigilante gangs must, if anything, feel more empowered by this curious example made of a gruesome murder. The rest, other than those who unthinkingly merge into majoritarian euphoria, and particularly those who assumed it was safe to speak their minds in free India, and of course the minorities, must, it would appear, get used to looking over their shoulders as they warily go about their lives wondering what unsuspecting move, word or deed can do them in and put their lives or limbs at risk. Already, the liberal, as a vulnerable category drawing the ire of religious zealotry, must be feeling the growing heat. Surveillance has just become more scarily acute and in your face. The meat you eat in your house or store in your fridge is no longer your private domestic matter.

It has cultural, religious, national consequences. Retail dispensers of culture, religion and nationalism in your locality, street or village can invade your house to prevent you from disgracing any of these articles of faith, and punish you if you have. If they choose to believe—in the absence of proof, suspicion or rumour will do—that you have eaten beef, that the meat in your fridge is beef, they can bludgeon you to death. Your protestations that the meat you ate, or that is kept in your fridge, is not beef will not help you. And proof, if anybody wants it at all, that it was indeed not beef comes too late to save your life. So beware. The eagle-eyed vigilante is watching you. So that we can have not just a cleaner but a religiously cleansed India.

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