The Affective Claims of Violence – Reflections on the JNU Campus Tragedy: Pratiksha Baxi

Guest Post by Pratiksha Baxi

Many competing frameworks have given expression to shock, disbelief, rage, grief, guilt and fear after the violence witnessed as the new semester kicked in, with a monumental tragedy, on the JNU campus. Everyone is stunned by the tragic turn of events that has resulted in a young woman battling for her life in a neuro–ICU in Safadarjung hospital. Confusion gripped the campus as the classroom became a scene of crime, a classmate became a bloodied body and the familiar transformed into the incomprehensible. It was devastating that the assailant, who succeeded in extinguishing his own life, aimed to unite in death the object of his obsession through a planned and highly performative act of violence in the routine setting of a classroom.

In the staging of this crime, we were all imagined as spectators, consumers and voyeurs—of the performance of violence—which intended to destroy its author, its object of obsession and some part of all of us. What disturbs us today is the fact that we are called to witness incomprehensible and tragic violence—whether or not we “saw” the blood, the weapons or the mangled bodies. We are disturbed since the performative power of such violence places upon us different affective claims: guilt, fear and even a demand to recognise heroism.

There are some who resist the characterisation of the dead student as a stalker, attributing this tragic violent act, to a state of victimhood. Explanations abound about the state of victimhood as an outcome of a mental health problem, illness narrative at home, penury, lack of ability to form adult relationships based on equality and respect, or even as an outcome of academic pressure. Some look for a “trigger” to explain the timing of the violence, others rightly blame institutional failure to recognise the cry for help that the student’s psychological torment evident to so many, demanded. All of these or none of these characterisations may be compelling—however, what also matters is the nature of response that this violence claims. The nature of violence is such that it already frames a response.

In some, it evokes a reluctant admiration for the stalker, who like a suicide bomber, assaults for an obsession yet cannot die alone. Typically we find victim–blaming statements, which blame the woman for provoking the violence by irrationally rejecting unwanted attention of the assailant. These responses thrive in the sub–culture where such narratives of violent “love” valorise men who assault and kill women if they cannot possess them. “Love” here is a form of colonisation, which must be conquered by force, owned and plundered. We are disturbed since the stalkers’ performance of violence intends to colonise not just the object of obsession (he can no longer see an autonomous being), but also colonises our space, as witnesses, voyeurs and consumers, by eliciting admiration, guilt and/or fear.

Equally, what happened evokes in some of us memories of the dreadful fear lived relentlessly when stalked. Some of us remember the banal everydayness of fighting fear at an unexpected meeting, a letter, repeated phone calls, abusive emails, being followed or assaulted. It entails the initial shock at discovering that one exists as an entity in someone’s obsession. Understanding that one’s refusal means eliciting violence, that being stalked means you cannot prove it or complain against it, unless you are grievously harmed. Being stalked means you have to change your routine, routes and spaces to be unharmed. It evokes memories of being colonised by fear, if friends, family, colleagues, employers, and/or the police do not stop the stalker, in a timely way.

The violence evokes the memories of Priyadarshini Matto, whose murder by her ex-boyfriend/stalker/murderer and rapist, some of us cannot stop mourning. The violence, in its performative nature, not only evokes cinematic imaginations, but it equally loops memory back to several men who tried to imitate Priya’s killer in quick succession in DU and JNU. Herein also lies the danger of how we respond to the claims of such violence.

Recognising that the performative nature of such violence is perhaps the first step towards denying its claim over us. As we find our voice, in what we collectively recognise as a crisis, perhaps we need to move away from frameworks, which essentialise a campus culture, speak of degeneration of a pristine past or locate blame in the security apparatus.

Rather we need to counter violence, by politicising the very notion of love, as a site, which births a dignified life. We need to think of institutionalising a radical politics of care in our workplaces. This also means professionalising services for our community, which attend to mental and sexual health issues; as well as institutionalise programs for legal literacy, which can help prevent escalation of violence. It means owing responsibility by creating newer institutional means at the level of each centre, school and hostel, rather than relegating the responsibility to an overburdened and often beleaguered GSCASH. It means taking strong steps against a faculty member who sexually harasses a student. It means scripting dignity in our everyday interactions. It means serious amount of labour in raising awareness on how to prevent violence. It means creating safe shelters for women on campus, and other survivors of violence for often survivors of violence need anonymity and professional help. It also means that we need to invent newer languages of care, dignity and responsibility in our everyday lives. Above all, we need to refuse to succumb to the affective claim—guilt, fear or admiration—which such performative violence demands.

Pratiksha Baxi is ASSISTANT PROFESSOR at the CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF LAW AND GOVERNANCE, JAWAHARLAL NEHRU UNIVERSITY (JNU)

This text was originally uploaded as a ‘status update’ by Praitkha Baxi on her Facebook Page on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm.

6 thoughts on “The Affective Claims of Violence – Reflections on the JNU Campus Tragedy: Pratiksha Baxi”

  1. My comment is a response to the above comment and the various commentaries made on Kafila and elsewhere on the recent incident, and as such should be read as a commentary on our thinking at the moment.

    The nostalgia that some of us are associating with JNU (as it were) really needs to be deconstructed and thrown out of the window. :)

    Having said that, most of the commentaries had a thorough assessment of the GSCASH as an institution. Institutional questions are well posed but I was wondering about this whole issue of socialization. What is being repeatedly made available to us is that well this ‘particular space has for long had different methods of socialization and now look at this, this has happened, as if the space (read JNU) was somehow excluded, or ‘we thought’ it was excluded when clearly it never was neither is nor will it be, so then the institutional framework, GSCASH is functioning on false premises of catering to this specific space called JNU. On needs to think on how we can improve its institutional structure, or maybe incorporate new institutional structure which supplements the GSCASH’s work.

    Secondly on the question of the ‘spectacle’ and performative aspect of the violence. It is going to be very tricky to talk about the performative without getting swayed by the media’s response to the performative. How can one revisit the spectacle without being a particular kind of subject, who enjoys it. Who wants to ‘know’. Already we are talking like, ‘Oh She was in my hostel’ or ‘ his room was next to mine’ or ‘ he appeared normal’ or worse concocting various stories. This ‘curiosity’ is itself representative of the spectacle.

    JNU is being eulogised (or is it just because I am reading these things consistently?) We need to criticise it differently, I guess. The left is so dominant (atleast in so far as our perception goes) that everyone thinks that the culture of left has made this an oasis of complete utopia of liberty. One only has to attend the elections to know how crazy it is. It is a deeply alienating campus, the battle lines are drawn at the very start. I mean, as a student body we never interact with the sciences at all, except when we want votes. I might have to take back words of ‘openness’. Imagine that a person comes to this campus, and this ‘openess’ is forced down your throat and if you practice religion and you are not outspoken you might as well take a hike. This is how the university really is. No one. Not one person on facebook or otherwise wants to criticise it constructively and substantially. Increasingly I am being convinced of how we bully one of our own without even realising it. This troubles me. Who is representing JNU? Bullying is a big problem, and there are various versions of it and we really need to sit and give it a think. Forced atmosphere of any kind, even the one that promises openness and liberty and freedom of thought can be detrimental to a community that is ‘open’.

    On a completely different note : I saw that stupid movie Raanjhanaa,(as if that movie provided some trigger) that everybody is quoting here and there- the funny thing is that while all the critics jumped on the wagon and said how idiotic the hero slitting his hands looked and how stalking is glamourised, I was wondering how we never ever talk about love and its problem. I mean it seems like we are always on the pendulum either it has to be strawberry rainbow filled field or some masochistic sadistic hatred, it never is shown as a grey area and for most part, i think it is always in the grey. The spectacle of love dies in about an hour of any courtship then it is just boring. Who tells us of what love is, how we deal with the relationships?
    I figured the only way to promote a healthy attitude inside our campus is by creating reading groups. like a full fledged fiction based reading group, we dont read enough grey matter.
    I am a Mphil student at JNU.

    1. Yes, it’s a deeply alienating campus.

      The currency of differentiation among the ghettos of the ” tribe” vary; sometimes it’s ‘ideology’ but mostly it’s privilege of one sort or another, which manifests in silencing and un-acknowledging the presence of the ‘cast out’ among the ‘blessed ones’.

      And the game of moves to let the ‘other’ feel uncomfortable and uneasy translates into hurting the self-respect of the ‘other’. But my worry is the clever use any currency available in the market of ideas and emotions and even “gender justice’ to play the above moves of the game.

      Being ‘politically correct’ is a role play and it could not possibly lead to deliverance from alienation.
      I could not understand why “violence” is emphasised as performative because it off-course is performative, it could not be otherwise in any case but the affective claims of violence as illustrated can also be induced by the speech-act of the ones who differentiate an individual based on the clues that the ‘other’ does not belongs to the group.

      Any ideology whether of subjugation or empowerment could be traded by the actors to account for privilege, hence leave the issue of ‘alienation’ unaccounted. So wee need sympathetic counsellors who do not judge us as victims or aggressors but as someone who has thus come to be, and could be healed.

  2. I whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Baxi. This is one of the best of best pieces I have read on the ghastly incident which occured in jnu a few days back. Perhaps, as has been suggested by a jnu student and friend of mine, we should have compulsory gender -sensitizing sessions and visit to a professional university appointed counsellor for a specified number of hours, each semester, in order to complete course credit requirements.

  3. I find myself in agreement with the author as well as with Swastee Ranjan. Every place has its soap operas and jnu is no exception. It is just as dogmatic as any other university environment, in some ways, even more so. There is a persistent, disembodied notion about that anything and anyone from jnu must obviously be progressive etc etc. What i did however notice when i lived in kaveri hostel for three years is that there is zero solidarity between the inmates(an apt characterization of the hostelers) and the workers. Somehow, too many people(and the faculty are no exception) seem to think that attending all night vigil, screaming slogans at the top one’s voice and those ridiculous ‘relay’ hunger strikes is where its at. I beg to differ but do not expect too many other to share my beliefs. To me, the reality of jnu is that a large number of students and faculty, of the leftist persuasion, do not even have the intellectual or rhetorical repertoire to speak with the common people. They bandy about fine progressive notions but keep to the in-group. People come and clean out our feces in morning from the toilets but it does not bother us students that this is the way things are. The slums surround jnu on all sides but it does not bother the jnuites that the people are so poor: they really do live in their bubble, venturing out, at times, to partake of the fineries of Delhi. The students and the activists have courage enough to speak truth to power but not enough wisdom to speak it to the common people. Hypocricy is the word.

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