Such absurdity on a Wednesday

Guest post by SHAHRUKH ALAM

On Wednesday, I met some young men from Dhule. I am not at all sure where Dhule is and I said as much to them. “There was some violence there. It has been in the news lately,” they said. “Did any bombs go off in Dhule?” said I. “No bombs, no. But there was communal violence. It was on the news.” “I only watch prime time news. I don’t usually manage to view the afternoon bulletins. Nor the eleven PM one (informative though they are),” I explained. “So where exactly is Dhule?” I persisted. “It is a district on the north-western tip of Maharashtra. It’s not so far from Malegaon.” Ah, Malegaon! Where the blasts occurred? Finally I had a co-ordinate.

But the young men of Dhule: they all looked terror-stricken. I was much intrigued by their looks. Why terror-stricken, when by their own admission, there hadn’t been any terror strikes? “Why do you look terrorized?” I enquired. “We have experienced violence. Our houses were attacked and we didn’t know if we’d live. We feared for our families,” they replied. “I understand and I’d empathize if you looked horrified or mortified. But a terrorized look, when not a single bomb has gone off, is rather an inappropriate thing to be wearing, surely? Much like being Dalit and wearing a look of resentment,” reasoned I.

“There was an angry mob charging about and we barely escaped with our lives. Some of us lost our homes. The police observed disinterestedly, as they usually do. It was a communal clash,” they answered unconvincingly. “Well then, look communally affected, or communally angry – communally charged, even, but where is reason to feel terror?” But they continued to look dumbfounded and terrorized.


On Friday, I had the good fortune to see A Wednesday. At a fundraiser for victims of the flood in North Bihar, organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I think A Wednesday is a wonderful film. I already had a feeling to that effect as I watched the film, but when the informed audience at the IHC gave it a standing ovation, I was convinced that it is, indeed, a good film.

It has a simple message. It says that the common man has really had enough of terrorism and that he should now stand up and strike: blow up the terrorists (or shoot them dead). The common man should not, anymore, leave things to the rule of law. He should really start to think about revenge. It is a clear and simple message, indeed. And it is not the first time we have heard it either. I recently heard a representative of the common men of Orissa explain why a young nun had to be raped and her Church razed to the ground: to express the frustration and helplessness of his lot at the ongoing conversions and of the need, therefore, to strike back. Mr. Modi said much the same, on behalf of all the common men of Gujarat, while elucidating the real reasons for the genocide.

To be fair to A Wednesday, though, this is exactly the kind of thing it warns against. Do not unleash genocide, it says. Rather, pick out some suspects and kill them. The common men of Orissa and Gujarat got a little carried away. There is obviously a problem when such clear and simple messages reach utterly confused minds – the same way high theory never seems to work at the grassroots. So now, Indian Mujahideen for instance, might argue that they are only responding to the logic of A Wednesday. Of course, they are not the victims of terrorism that the film seeks to inspire but I have already told you about the young men of Dhule. Some people get terrorized at the drop of a hat.

But I felt that A Wednesday was a terribly responsible film. In order to make things even more clear, it provides a pithy list of activities that logically qualify as arousing terror and that, therefore, warrant vigilante action. The protagonist takes us through it on many an occasion during the film. Bomb explosions that kill innocent people are naturally, logically on the list. A Wednesday is a responsible film and genocides, ethnic cleansings, communal and caste riots, honourable acquittals of those involved, by commissions of enquiry, starvation deaths, encounters, tortures, humiliations, discriminations are not on the list. I wish young men and women of Dhule, Kandhamal, Rampur-Bairiya, Jajjhar, Hashimpura and elsewhere would please take note.

I do not for a moment suspect that A Wednesday is oblivious to the fact that every revolutionary idea or policy has its pitfalls (even NREGA and RTI have problems of implementation). I feel the characters of Jai Singh and Arif Khan are, in fact, a portrayal of the different ways in which this novel call to arms might unfold.

They are both underlings of Prakash Rathore, the Commissioner of Police and also invested with considerable power to retaliate to violence. Now, while Jai Singh never shies away from killing, he is not anarchic. He sticks to the concise list that is supposed to be a reference point for one and all. He only kills those accused of planting bombs in assorted places. At other times he is honourable, courageous and very calm. He is also a caring family man. Arif Khan, on the other hand, is edgy and volatile. He is the type who is confused about the kinds of actions that need vigilante reaction and those that most certainly do not. He is indisciplined and irresponsible. He is also an excellent representation of the Muslim, I feel. Muslims are exactly like Arif Khan. They talk little and glower a lot and are given to sudden fits of violence. It wasn’t for nothing that the film was celebrated as a ‘realistic and gritty picture of things‘.

The brilliant thing about A Wednesday is that after it has underlined the possible dangers of being misunderstood, it even provides solutions. It shows that Arif Khan can be brought in line with a little bit of supervision from the state and from more sensible people who have a sense of terror and non-terror. All one needs to do is to keep an eye out and sometimes punish in order to discipline.

I have to admit that I was somewhat anxious in the beginning, in the auditorium, that evening. While most of the audience seemed sensible like Jai Singh – people who clearly knew when it was right to strike back in anger and when the situation did not merit it at all – there were some who were distinctly jumpy like Arif Khan. I couldn’t help but wonder if this exercise by common people in privatizing relief, taking things into our own hands – collecting funds for flood victims, without first asking the state some basic questions – might not translate itself into other forms of action too. I even said a silent prayer for some officers in the Bihar government. But then I saw the part about careful supervision and occasional chastisement, kept an eye on the agitated sorts in the crowd, throughout the film, and felt most reassured.

Finally, A Wednesday recognizes that a lot is read into mere names (or Kefayas that the police sometimes like to drape their catch in). I stand guilty as charged for I did wonder why the three saviours – Prakash Rathore, Jai Singh and the quick-tempered Arif Khan – couldn’t have been called Prakash Bhotmange, Nirmal Ram and Arif Kallal instead? But then, that’s another kind of commonality altogether. Let’s not go there. Let the warriors do their job, shall we?

(Shahrukh Alam is with the Patna Collective. See also: On Being Muslim and May I offer you this picture?)

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