News pornography and mediated cultures of violence: Anirban K. Baishya, Shaheen S. Ahmed and Amit R. Baishya

Guest Post by ANIRBAN K. BAISHYA, SHAHEEN S. AHMED and AMIT R. BAISHYA

Satyamev Jayate, the popular Aamir Khan-helmed TV show, aired an episode in May this year that praised northeast India [an unfortunate “directional category” (Barbora) that homogenizes a complex, polyglot region] for its virtual absence of dowry-related crimes and its general “liberalism” on gender issues.  Subsequently, one saw a virtual deluge of “Proud to be from the northeast”- type of messages on social networking sites such as Facebook.  June and July, though, were cruel and dispiriting months that belied such declarations of identitarian pride, especially for people from Assam.

On June 29, viewers were confronted with the televised spectacle of a public assault by a mob of around 100 people on the Congress MLA Rumi Nath and her second husband, Zakir Hussain in Karimganj’s Nakshatra Hotel. The mob was apparently furious because Nath had left her first husband and child and married a Muslim man. Images of a bloodied and battered Nath and Hussain beseeching the mob to desist were replayed repeatedly in the local and national media. Although the Rumi Nath incident did not lead to a significant expression of public outrage (as it should have) in Assam, the July 9 incident on Guwahati’s well-frequented GS road brought things to a head.

A young girl who had come out of the “Club Mint” bar in the evening was stripped and molested in full public view for about 45 minutes by a group of about fifteen men. All this while, Gaurav Jyoti Neog, a reporter from a local 24 hour TV channel, NewsLive, kept filming this shocking public assault while some of the assailants, most notably the state government employee Amarjyoti Kalita, kept looking, leering and smiling triumphantly at the camera.  NewsLive, which broke this story on July 10, initially presented it as a case of cultural degeneration. “Guwahatir Mataal Juboti” (Drunk Young Women of Guwahati)—the story initially ran. Images of two “drunk” young women behaving aggressively towards a group of men were replayed again and again and were accompanied by a screeching soundtrack and a stern moral, chastising voiceover that exposed how “foreign” elements like bars had contaminated the imaginary “purity” of the local culture. The facts, however, could not be hidden for long.

It soon emerged that a large portion of the incident was possibly instigated by the presence of the TV camera. Edited and modified into a reprehensible, yet all-too-familiar narrative framework about the degeneration of cultural and public morality, magnified even more so because women were the primary “offenders,” NewsLive’s initial peg was slowly hoisted on its own petard as many people reacted with shock, disgust, horror and outrage to the slowly trickling details about this incident.[1] There were public protests in Guwahati and elsewhere, the national media took up the case in a big way, the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, Sonia Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan and numerous public personalities and organizations condemned the incident strongly, Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi got involved and later alleged that the national media focused only on “negative” stories from the northeas

The July 9 incident soon spiraled to potentially become the Indian media’s “Murdoch moment” (Chaudhury). Feelings of collective “pride” which were publicly demonstrated by many people in Assam after the airing of the Satyamev Jayate episode swiftly metamorphosed into expressions of “shame” and “disgust.” Thus, Sandeep Phukan, an NDTV correspondent and a self-described “Guwahati boy” said on the same channel on July 12 that this “is not the city I grew up in…the city I grew up…at least used to be known for its tolerance and respect towards women….this was intolerance at its height.” Shock at the “unprecedented” nature of this event in a hitherto “tolerant” and “liberal” society seemed to be a dominant public reaction.

The July 9 “event,” however, was not an “unprecedented” outburst; rather, it forms part of a chain of similar incidents that had been occurring in India and Assam for a while.  Our purpose in juxtaposing the public reactions to Satyamev Jayate with the two recent incidents of public assault against women in Assam is to draw attention to the mediated, “manufactured” form of these events and how the media in general, and the visual media in particular, have emerged as crucial nodes in the production of collective affects such as those of “pride” and “shame.”  We do not want to enter into a discussion of whether the Assamese (or northeasterners in general) are more “tolerant” or “intolerant” about issues concerning gender than their mainland counterparts. Such images of “tolerance” and “our” own psychological investments in them are key ways in which national (or regional) communities construct and sustain idealized versions of a collective self.  Employing a psychoanalytic vocabulary, we can say that such expressions of identitarian pride about “our” “tolerance” represent an ego-ideal which a particular social group is affectively invested in.  Collective expressions of “shame” or “disgust” represent the opposite pole of this affective continuum. Although such affective investments are possibly unavoidable constituents for cultural self-definitions and certain forms of cultural politics, focusing only on these issues as a specific problem of “Assamese” or “northeastern” culture is a reductive proposition.

The important point, we feel, are the specific mediated forms and narrative grammars of such events in this age of “live television” and “breaking news,” and the related issue of how technomediated forms are harnessed for the purpose of policing social movement, especially for women, in India’s urban, rapidly urbanizing and semi-urban spaces.[2] Such forms of social policing, we suggest, go hand-in-hand with the transformation of news into spectacle or lascivious theater.

To be sure, “national” or “local” discourses on the mediatized production of images and its concomitant effects and consequences cannot be read in isolation from larger trends in global media, especially those concerning the so-called “live” representation of the “real” that have become a norm since the l990s. Besides drawing upon available “national” or “local” scripts, such instances of “live news” in regional channels in Assam and elsewhere are also glocalised effects of this wider phenomenon called “live” television, the reach and growth of which has been rhizomatic post the “global” neoliberal turn during the 1990s.  Jean Baudrillard’s argument regarding the creation of the hyperreal provides a possible explanation of the implications of this repetitive telecast of images of violence that gets replayed in our living rooms at the level of the everyday.  Baudrillard posits that the “real” is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models which can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. Such productions of the “real” are no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance—we are far away here from the classical sense of mimesis. In fact, since the representation no longer gestures toward a referent “outside,” it is no longer “real” in the classical sense at all. Instead, it is hyperreal: the manufactured product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.  Thus, it becomes the question of substituting signs of the real for the “real” itself—a patchwork process that continues in an endless loop creating certain narrative versions of the “same,” albeit filled with supposedly “new” contents. The repetition of such narrative loops necessitate that non-events are played out and simulated as THE event, until the next one comes along, in the age of news overload and information dissemination. So, when Rumi Nath was assaulted or the girl molested in the streets in the presence of a television news camera, we suggest that these were instances of a telegenically relayed “reality” that produced divergent affects such as anxiety, anger, disgust, shame and fear for its audiences.

Shoma Chaudhury seems to make analogous points about the hyperreal manufacturing of “reality” in contemporary India in her thought-provoking editorial for Tehelka on July 28. We diverge from her slightly, however, when she says—“as a society, we no longer feel enjoined to talk even the baseline language of modernity.” This statement assumes that there is a set path for the “modern”—a teleological journey that “we” all share and participate in; a relentless forward journey towards increasing individual rights and social freedoms. We argue that such televised instances of shaming, stripping and assaulting “aberrant” women (and also men—the assault on Prashant Bhushan in 2011 is still fresh in our memories) in public spaces in India are very much a symptom of a form of a telegenically-produced modernity which we will define later as an “ugly” modernity. The narrative codes that sustain such forms of an ugly modernity are deeply imbricated with the fabric of the “baseline language of modernity” that Chaudhury invokes in her article. The multiple ways in which this “ugly” modernity manifests itself simultaneously has a pan-Indian and a specific local dimension, something Chaudhury hints at when she juxtaposes the July 9 incident with two other media “spectacles”—a Khap Panchayat diktat in Uttar Pradesh and the “media circus” surrounding the exposure of a ward-boy’s “negligence” in Bulandshahr.

The crucial node for the production and sustenance of such forms of ugly modernity, we argue, are the technomediated cultures of surveillance and voyeurism which have become endemic in contemporary India. The video camera, the cellphone and the MMS clip have emerged as powerful, and intrusive, tools for surveillance and social control in everyday life in India. Chaudhury’s point that “for the toss of a coin, this incident could have happened anywhere in the country,” is a correct one. We extend it to argue that the Rumi Nath and the July 9 events form a continuum with incidents such as the violence manufactured, threatened and executed by organizations like the Shiv Sena or the Sri Ram Sene on Valentine’s Day, the repeated valorization of narratives of privatized vengeance on numerous mainstream Indian news channels, and the vicarious, voyeuristic pleasures of being-there at a crime scene that are epitomized by the narrative grammar of many popular “reality” series on Indian television networks. The common element in all these cases is that they are scenarios increasingly manufactured by the visual media. The fragile distinction between reporting and creating news is erased repeatedly.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of the specific local dimensions of the two cases. These incidents in Assam also are integral parts of the cultures of impunity that have become a part and parcel of everyday life in the region. As Uddipana Goswami writes—“When young boys grow up watching lawkeepers becoming lawbreakers, there definitely becomes ingrained in them a certain disregard for the law.” Such “lawbreakers” include both the governmental security forces, aided and abetted by draconian state security laws such as the AFSPA, and the numerous para-sovereign organizations and entities (both militant and “cultural”) that enforce their cultural diktats on the people of the region. Cultural dictates on what to wear (especially for women), what to view, listen and enjoy, and how to conduct oneself in public life have had a fairly long history in the region. As a result of the proliferation of these cultures of impunity, violence in public spaces becomes legitimized, the lines between the public and the private are blurred, narratives of privatized vengeance with an utter disregard for existing laws are valorized, and people are incited into “action” with the allure of “instant” justice. All the while, the threat of punishment recedes further and further into the distance and slowly sinks into the realm of forgetfulness as soon as the depicted event exhausts it’s necessarily short, but “radically” sensational, shelf-life. Sensationalist local news networks like NewsLive and DY 365 (among others)—relatively new entrants to this field of “news” and cultural production—feed and batten themselves upon the sustenance of such cultures of impunity in Assam and other northeastern states, a point we will elaborate in the latter sections of this essay.[3] Let us first turn to an analysis of the contours of a commonly encountered narrative grammar of live television in India which we refer to as the “Sansani syndrome.”

The Sansani Syndrome: Some Reflections on the Narrative Grammars of Live Television in India

Two things immediately come into focus in the flurry of events following incidents like those of July 9. First, we have to contend with the repeated relay of images of violenceon television screens, and, second, with the nature of this repetition itself. The relay of the images of violence against the victims in the Rumi Nath and July 9 incidents goes beyond the broadcast of “simple” news footage. News footage, understood in the “documentary” sense of the term is marked by a general belief in it as being “real.” “It” happened then, the camera was there and hence we as the recipients of “truth” get to see what “really” happened there. Thus, a sense of being-there as a witness to the unfolding of events is crucial for the production of such truth-effects. This argument for the “truth-value” of the news-image or any form of the mechanically recorded image is not new—we have, for instance, Bazin noting in 1958 that the “objective nature of  photography…confers on it a quality of  credibility” that forces us “to accept as real  the  existence of  the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us” (7-8). However today, some fifty-odd years after Bazin’s pronouncement on the relative “immediacy” of the photographic image, we are faced with an entirely different beast. This beast, a mutated successor to its silver-halide predecessor is no longer satisfied with being just “real.”

In terms of 24 hour news television, we can safely say that the moving news-image has made its great leap forward and literally come a-“live”. Between and betwixt the move from celluloid to video, the modalities for the reception of moving images and the modes of proliferation of these consumable “products” have changed significantly. Now with the coming of digital technology, something becomes news as soon as it happens—all it takes is the necessary technology to be present on the spot. The distance between “event” and “reporting” has become significantly smaller, and the dominion of the “live” is expanding rapidly in hitherto unprecedented ways.

But what does this change in the image-regime mean for us as spectators, or even as producers, of “news”? And why do we invoke this changing image-regime in an article about recent cases of violence in one so-called “peripheral” Indian state?  What we see in these incidents in Assam is a subtle enmeshing of one kind of image-regime with a certain kind of local cultural politics. Here, a particular kind of technological and affective configuration are subtly deployed in the service of an imaginary notion of what it means to be a citizen, an “Indian” or an “Assamese.” As an instance, we would like to draw attention to the attacks on young women in Mangalore by self-styled moral guardians from the Ram Sene in 2009 and more recently by activists of the Hindu Janajagrana Vedike in 2012, which in themselves are not only “attacks” but “televised attacks.” Mohit Rao alleges that television channels were “alerted before the attack by Sri Ram Sena (sic) on girls in a pub so they could televise what the group described as ‘punishment’ for violating Indian morality.” Later, reporters of the TV news channels Kasturi and Sahaya were also charged by the police for an uncensored airing of the event. If we cast our gaze further back, we can recall the harrowing incident in 2007 in Bhagalpur in which a young man who had stolen a chain was not merely slapped, kicked, beaten and whipped by a mob, but was also tied to a motorcycle and dragged through the street by a police official. Peter Foster notes that the general conception about such an incident was that “while the news networks were clearly ambulance (or ratings) chasing, airing this stuff was performing a service–namely confronting India with its own brutality” (our emphasis). But this, he continues, leaves us asking a pertinent and urgent question—“So will any of this voyeurism–I use the term advisedly, when you watch the video you simply can’t take your eyes of it, sickening though it may be–make a difference?” Foster, ends on an optimistic note suggesting that it will “since any society which is made to watch this kind of brutality will have to begin asking questions of itself” (italics ours).

We are a little skeptical of Foster’s rather optimistic and universalizing claim. The obverse is also possible—such forms of mediation can dull the impact of brutality and create or sustain a silent consensus that legitimizes violence. The lack of any significant public reaction to the Rumi Nath incident is a case in point. Moreover, this idea about “confronting India with its own brutality” has become one of the ways in which such “live” telecasts are defended in the first place—a rhetoric that has been used by NewsLive to defend its airing of the July 9 incident [Sensing the shift in public mood, NewsLive did a volte face and began to identify the culprits from around Thursday (July 11). NewsLive’s former editor-in-chief, Atanu Bhuyan, later made the ludicrous assertion that the culprits could be identified only because of the footage from the TV channel].

It is also crucial to locate the role of the consumer in this discourse on the televised image, for it is the consumer’s demands and desires that leads to the ceaseless “supply” of these telegenic events playing out in our private spaces. We recognize that the “consumer” is not a homogenous category, but would like to emphasize that a new kind of viewing public emerged in India during the shift towards economic liberalization and the concomitant proliferation of a huge number of television channels, both national and local. Christiane Brosius argues that many of the metaphors emerging in the Indian middle-class consumer’s context are actually “narratives of self-realisation appropriated from the ‘American Dream’, from which it is successfully translated into an ‘Indian Dream’.” The locus-standi of this middle-class viewing public is central since they form the major viewer base for such news channels. Many members of this segment consider themselves as motors of a new national revitalization, both in terms of the growing economy and of moral values. Such self-perceptions of the middle-class as custodians of both the “forward” movement towards economic revitalization and the preservation of “traditional” moral values come into conflict with the new possibilities of movement and social intercourse in India’s urban spaces. More often than not, the mobile figure of the post-modern Indian woman becomes the visible sign and ground on which these conflicts and battles are waged—a fact that the cult of “live news” has recognized from its very beginnings.

Here, it is useful to remind ourselves of Sanjeev K. Sharma’s conclusions in his essay on the depiction of women in the Indian media. Sharma quotes studies that show that stories about social issues related to women (such as those of equality of status and opportunity) got less than 9 percent while sensational stories relating to women, which were mostly crime stories, got between 52 and 63 percent of coverage in newspapers. Clearly, all news is equal, but some forms of “news” are more equal than others.

The two incidents in Assam should be located within such “negative” potentialities opened up by digital technology. Like “sting operations,” such televised attacks also thrive on the confluence of voyeurism and surveillance that has been inaugurated particularly by the advent of 24-hour news channels. In certain ways then, the medium of the news channel becomes a “tele-ethical” system in the hands of vigilante groups whose sense of “justice” is always “right” (pun very much intended). The silver-halide ghost has left us with the digital scramble that is accompanied by the potential of attaining monstrous dimensions.  Such Frankenstein-ish developments in media-technology can definitely democratize image-regimes, but also contains the potential of extracting its own brutal price. True, now the moving image is no longer the purview of the few. With the advent of cheap “handycams” and mobile phone cameras, the digital image has become a ubiquitous part of the way we imagine our relationship to each other and the world in Indian public spaces. The image has proliferated so deeply within the anatomy of our social lives that producing an image, distributing it or consuming it has become a form of second nature. For a news-channel that has to run 24 hours a day, this can only mean that “news” has to become even more “spectacular” even while the “event” recorded is possibly a banal one. Hence, the proliferation of a recognizable dramatic narrative form that we see repeatedly in our news channels today.

But what exactly are the codes of this dramatic narrative form that we are gesturing towards? Faced with a growing demand to “show” every hour of the day, 24 hours news channels rely greatly on two things—repetition and spectacle. The dramatic narrative form of the 24 hours news channels emerges between these two elements. Precisely because they run 24 hours a day, such channels have to repeat their content, and precisely because they have to repeat it, there is an obsessive focus on the “spectacular” nature of the everyday. Thus, unlike the newspaper headline that will “tell” us about, say a bomb attack, the 24 hour news channel will “show” it to us and more often than not with the added drama of music and special effects at various points in the package [As we write this, we have in mind, for instance, the images of flames and CGI explosions overlaid with music at the beginning of a news report on TV 9 about the recent Pune blasts on August 1]. Everywhere there is a search for the extraordinary, for the sensational and the spectacular—a search we refer to as the “Sansani syndrome.” We are referring specifically to the narrative structure of “news” shows such as the popular StarNews programme Sansani which, according to Sulekha, “re-creates the actual scene of crime vividly, wherever needed, to give the viewing audience a real tasteof the crime scene” ostensibly to bring “the viewer(s) face-to-face with the reality of crime all over the country, keeping…(them)…aware and on guard” (our emphases and emendations).  Even as it is an exaggerated form constantly looking for the iconic even in the banal and setting up our world for consumption in vivid tableaus of policing and fear, it constantly asserts itself as “real.”

For viewers bombarded constantly by repetitive images of the produced-spectacular, the “event” itself recedes to the distance even as we are constantly faced with multiple dramatized representations of it. If Sansani set the paradigm for such kinds of reporting, or rather re-creation, what is happening now is a “spill-over” effect of Sansani. By “spill-over,” we refer to a form of tableaux recreation of ghastly crime scenes in numerous Indian shows, not necessarily those of “news” reportage alone. Such shows share elective affinities with the narrative form of 24 hour news television. Examples of such spill-overs include the hugely popular Crime Patrol on Sony Entertainment Television, Gumraah on Channel V or a show like F.I.R on DY365 in Assam. This ensures that the consumer actually has the option to vicariously “live” out an actual crime scene in these late-night shows. For the Assamese show F.I.R, the timings are even more dubious as it airs at prime-time inviting everyone to be a voyeur at the scene of the crime. The “live,” ironically, finds itself constantly shrouded by the “deathly,” as the hallucinatory impact of hyperreal events are replayed in an incantatory fashion. Such incantatory repetitions and invitations to experience the event “live” provide a framework for many 24-hour news broadcasts as well. Our experience of the reported events are dependent on the vicarious experience of violence relayed to us by such news networks, a certain “pornographization,” especially of the 24 hour news, that is becoming increasingly endemic in many satellite channels.

This tendency towards the pornographization of news also converge with the sensationalist and reductive ways of analyzing events in contemporary Indian news networks—Arnab Goswami’s daily screech-a-thons on Times Now are probably the best (or worst?) examples of this. As a result of the hyper-proliferation of this kangaroo-court mentality produced by contemporary mediated forms, the victims are judged guilty even before she or he is charged, conclusions are reached on the basis of rumor even before evidence is presented, and a demand for “instant” justice is gratuitously replayed time and again only to be forgotten as soon as a new mediated “scandal” takes center stage.

The Pornographization of “News” in Assam.

If we have dwelt so long on the sensationalist aspects of 24 hour news television, it is because of our assertion that there are multiple layers to the two events that followed each other in rapid succession in Assam. While one of these layers falls within the locus of exclusionary trends of cultural politics in Assam, another reflects the relatively new trend towards the pornographization of the news by the visual media in the state (24-hour news channels began around 5-6 years in Assam. NewsLive itself began operations in 2008). In this relentless drive towards the pornographization of news, the local visual media in Assam partakes of a global and pan-Indian phenomenon. Moreover, if we look back carefully, we notice that neither the Rumi Nath nor the July 9 incidents are the first of their kind in the sphere of the visual media in Assam. In 2007, Laxmi Oraon, an Adivasi woman, was stripped and brutally beaten by a mob during a protest rally in Guwahati. More recently, in 2010, a Mizo girl who had lost her way and had gone to someone’s house looking for directions was beaten up by local women in the presence of a news channel crew on the suspicion of being inebriated in the Chandmari area of Guwahati. We draw attention particularly to the latter incident as it is fairly recent, being not too far removed in time from the July 9 and Rumi Nath incidents.

If the latter two incidents can be viewed as the “shocking” maturation of an epidemic that was gradually encroaching the spheres of public life in Assam, the incident of the unnamed Mizo girl certainly displayed the early symptoms of this malignant narrative grammar. The narrative grammar through which this incident was represented displays all the tell-tale signs of the malaise at hand—the “spectacle” of the stripping and violent punishment of an “aberrant” woman that fell just short of a publicly televised lynching. At the time of the incident, news sources reported that the girl was returning from a marriage and was inebriated at the time she had gone asking for directions. The time reported by locals was around 3:00 AM in the morning. Yet the images of the assault in the clip from DY 365 available on youtube clearly take place in the early morning. It is as if the extreme instances of assault just had to wait till the TV crew got to the place. The girl was slapped, kicked and beaten with sticks, her mobile phone was taken away, and when she tried to defend herself, the violence only increased in intensity. All this while, the tapestry of torture and humiliation unfolded before the camera lens with dramatic music in the background. Again, no one intervened.

What we have in the representation of this incident is a complex enmeshing of different issues that have literally come a-“live” in front of the camera—paranoia about an imaginary socio-cultural “purity” that must be defended, the dangerous and stereotypical associations that are instituted between certain styles of women’s clothing or habits (such as drinking) or the public exposure of people with supposedly “criminal” or “indecent” intentions. To the perpetrators, the Mizo girl was “immoral” (the fact that no one knew who she was, where she had come from or what exactly she had done didn’t matter) because she was drunk and “abusive” and had to be punished in an exemplary fashion. Her punishment had to be a public spectacle that could send out the image and the message to the viewers to always be on guard. A “tele-surveillance” (Virilio) of an image of the “authentic” and “pure” local culture is thus established—not a mutated sort of a panoptic vision that looks “into” and controls the inmates of a carceral system, but, rather, a surveillance-machine that looks outwards with unblinking eyes and transfixes the fear of deviation through a manufactured and repeatedly emphasized image of a “pure” and “authentic” culture. Furthermore, if the subsumption of privatized vengeance is central to the narrative of the “triumphal” progression of the “rational,” liberal narrative of the rule-of-law, we can term such incantatory, repeated televised dramatizations of the dispensation of instant justice as an obscene supplement in the Zizekian sense of the term.

To paraphrase Zizek, while such events “shock” us with a violation of the cherished ideals of a “liberal” community, through their incantatory repetition they exert a maximal pressure on us as individuals to enact certain forms of group identification. You never know, this narrative seems to insistently repeat before its particular form gets relegated into the morass of forgetfulness, when the camera can “capture” you. So better “behave” yourself if you want to avoid trouble. This supplementation of the liberal regime of the rule-of-law (whose “shocking” absence is frequently evoked by well-meaning believers in the “baseline language of modernity”) with the constant, repetitive display of its pornographized underside(s) is what we call an “ugly modernity.”[4]

Additionally, these endlessly replayed, and also easily forgotten, images are pornographic in the sense that it mutes the represented subject in the heightening of the expression of “orgasmic” pleasure and turns it into an object. The difference between sexualized pornography and “news-porn” of the sort we have been discussing is only one of focus—their form remains the same insofar as the muting or even the complete obliteration of the subject is concerned. Of course we are not saying this about all of television news but definitely about the kind of sensational television news marked by the “Sansani syndrome.” Like hardcore pornography that is only concerned with the ultimate climax [the “moneyshot” (Williams)], while everything else is supposed to lead towards this form of narrative closure, such forms of pornographized news are only concerned with the progression towards a climactic sense of the delivery of “justice”—a “justice” that emanates from a Manichean worldview. This Manichean structure emerges and is reproduced repeatedly from social fantasies of vigilante universes whose shadowy “laws” are supposedly set in concrete.  Justice is the performative upholding of such distorted and phantasmatic forms-of-law that needs to be (re)defined and imposed repeatedly and repetitively, injustice is any deviation from such phantasmatic orders, and the perceived disorder has to be “corrected” through violent forms of punishment that involves the abjection of the body of the “transgressor.” Thus, the pornographized news-story reaches its climax; a form of closure that is repeated over and over again for a short span of time. The surveillance-machine then looks outward for more victims and new “stories” to satiate its relentlessly growing appetite.

More crucially, most of these pornographized forms of “breaking news” are also about “breaking” so-called “aberrant” women in body and spirit. The greater the intensity of the violence on the body of the woman—be it Laxmi Oraon, the unnamed Mizo woman, Rumi Nath or the young girl at the center of the July 9 incident—the greater the intensity and the horror of the spectacle. Stripping the clothes of the woman or forcing her to look directly in the camera for purposes of identification is the “orgasmic” culmination of the vigilante-type dispensation of instant justice. The images of a battered and bleeding “bigamous” woman beseeching the crowd for mercy or that of a young girl being stripped and molested outside a bar in the middle of the city could only have their desired “dramatic” effect through the operation of the narrative form enmeshed with this “news”-machine. Much like the figure of the vamp in American film noir and in Bollywood cinema, the Manichean moral universe of this narrative can only be redressed through the punishment of the offending figure. After all, hadn’t the judgments already been pronounced earlier and elsewhere?

Here, for instance, is what the Assam Public Health Engineering Minister Gautam Roy said in a public meeting on June 26: “Why should Hindu girls marry Muslim boys? Why should young Muslim girls marry Hindu boys? Is there any dearth of bridegrooms among co-religionists? Any young boy or girl who has an inter-religious marriage must be boycotted by the village and should be bashed up” (Deka). This comment was followed by discussions on Rumi Nath’s “character” on television and internet discussion boards—a chain of events that eventually culminated in the public assault on June 29. And wasn’t the Congress MLA, Amiya Gogoi, reflecting a conservative patriarchal consensus shared by many viewers of NewsLive and its ilk when she “justified” the July 9 incident in Seven Sister’s Post saying: “Pogola kukur rastat ulale bhal kukurok kamuriboi. Suti skirt pinhi douri phurile enekua ghotona hoboi” (When mad dogs roam the streets they will inevitably bite the healthy dogs. Likewise, when a girl runs around wearing a short skirt, such events will inevitably happen)? In both instances, it is the figure of the female “offender” that is familiarly blamed—the implicit logic being that she “deserved” it because of her “immorality” and “transgressive” behavior. In one case, a Hindu woman had left her husband from her first marriage, converted to Islam and gone into a second marriage. In the latter, a young girl was out drinking in a bar dressed in the very un-“Assamese” attire of a “short skirt”—inexcusable “crimes” for a woman and a visible symptom of cultural degeneration. These “aberrations” had to be “cured,” and who else can rid “us” of this disease other than a kangaroo-court of “we the people” that appear suddenly as soon as the camera arrives and then slink away into darkness and anonymity once the deed is done?

After all, the logic goes, if the shadowy specter of the “people” desires it, it is indeed a “good,” “justifiable” and, even, pleasure-inducing end to such pornographic narratives of voyeurism and surveillance. “Society,” after all, must be defended.

Works Cited:

Barbora, Sanjoy. “Under the Invisibility Cloak: Re-Imagining the ‘Northeast’—Introduction to the    Special Section on Northeast India.” Biblio (May-June, 2008), 15. Web.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” in Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.) The Visual Culture         Reader (2nd Edition). London: Routledge, 2002. 145-47. Print.

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” trans. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly (13.4),             Summer 1960. 4-9. Print.

Brosius, Cristiane. India’s Middle Class: New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and Prosperity.           London: Routledge, 2010. 3.Print.

Bordoloi, Nilakshi. “Cong. Legislator Skirts the Issue for Rising Hemlines.” Seven Sisters Post. 20   July 2012. Web.

Chaudhury, Shoma. “The Tail has begun to Wag the Dog.” Tehelka (Vol 9, Issue 30), 28 July 2012.            Web.

Choudhury, Ratnadip. “Manufactured Shame.” Tehelka (Vol 9, Issue 30), 28 July 2012. Web.

Deka, Kaushik. “Private Lives, Public Rage.” India Today. 07 July 2012. Web.

Foster, Peter.”Brutal Police Beating Aired on Indian TV.” The Telegraph. 28 August 2007. Web.

Goswami, Uddipana. “Barenaked Ladies.” ibnlive.21 July 2012. Web.

Love, Sex aur Dhoka. dir: Dibakar Banerjee. 2010. Film.

“Pune Blast a Planned, Coordinated Act: RK Singh—TV 9.” youtube. 02 Aug 2012.Web

Rahman, Teresa. “Murder in Plain Sight.” Tehelka (Vol 6, Issue 31). 08 Aug 2009. Web.

Rao, Mohit M. “They Slapped me Repeatedly.” The Hindu. 30 July 2012. Web

“Sansani Overview.” Sulekha. Accessed: 22 Aug. 2012. Web.

Sharma, Sanjeev K. “Depiction of Women in Indian Media: Case of Introspection for Indian            Planners.” Samaj Vigyan Shodh Patrika (Vol I, No. 1), Apr-Sep 2005, 32-36. Web.

“Video of Guwahati Mob Molesting Girl Shames Police into Action.” youtube. 12 July 2012.

Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. trans. Chris Turner. London, New York: Verso, 2005. Print.

“Visitor from Mizoram Attacked for Asking Directions to Guesthouse at Guwahati.”        youtube. 28 Feb 2011.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible.’ Berkeley: University of         California Press, 1989. Print.

Zizek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2007. Print.


[1] See Ratnadip Choudhury’s article for details of the incident and its aftermath. Of course, the outrage wasn’t universally shared in Assam. Interestingly, the AASU (All Assam Student Union) and AJYCP (Axom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chattra Parishad)—two cultural bodies that repeatedly police cultural “transgressions” in Assam—maintained a stony silence on the issue.

[2] We are not suggesting that the role of technomediated forms of surveillance only have a “negative” dimension in contemporary socio-cultural life. As films like Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhoka (LSD) illustrate, a “surveillance aesthetic” can also function as instruments of social critique. We cannot explore this point further in this write-up.

[3] Interestingly, the AASU (All Assam Student Union) and AJYCP (Axom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chattra Parishad)—two cultural bodies that repeatedly police cultural “transgressions” in Assam—maintained and still maintain a stony silence on the issue.

[4] Here’s an instance of a similar “shocked” reaction that followed a deviation from the “baseline language of modernity,” incidentally again from Tehelka. On August 8, 2009, Tehelka carried an article by Teresa Rahman, along with photographs, of Thongkham Sanjit’s infamous “encounter killing” by state-security forces in Imphal. Two statements in this article illustrate the oscillation between the liberal discourse of rule-of-law and the brutal political reality of abandonment. At the beginning of the article, Rahman asks: How can a State justify such a war against its own people?” At the article’s end, an Imphal resident observes: “Life in Manipur is like a lottery. You are alive because you are lucky.” Rahman’s statement represents the liberal citizen subject’s horror at the fact that the state fails to protect the lives of its citizenry; the Imphal resident’s statement reiterates the dark political reality that sovereign entities often abandon and let subjects die in zones of exception like Manipur.

Anirban Baishya is in the M.Phil programme of  Cinema Studies, School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU; Shaheen Ahmed is a recent MA graduate from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU; Amit Baishya is Assistant Professor, English Department, Ball State University, USA.

2 thoughts on “News pornography and mediated cultures of violence: Anirban K. Baishya, Shaheen S. Ahmed and Amit R. Baishya”

  1. News corporations, like any other business, are motivated by financial motives. It our duty as human beings to read between the lines as well. News, or for that matter anything else, cannot influence someone unless they are ready to be influenced. That I think is the problem, why are we so eagerly waiting to be ‘influenced’ thus?

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s