These are guest posts by Akash Bhattacharya and Arif Hayat Nairang
The film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai has been in the news recently, and not always for the right reasons, having attracted disruptive and abusive protest at some screenings. Following a day of counter-protest in which the film was screened all over the country, a friend teaching in a Delhi University college suggested screening it in her college, only to be told by the student representative that it would “cause trouble” (“bawwal mach jayega ma’am!!”). She asked what that meant and if he had seen the film, and he simply said, “nahin, bhaiyya logon ne kaha hai ki woh film bahut buri hai” (No, but our elder brothers have said it’s a bad film).
In an atmosphere where political self-censoring comes as easily to the current generation of students as scouring the net for “blocked content” we present below two readings of the reception of the film, the first ruminating on whether the film addresses the complexities of communal mobilisation adequately; and the second inquiring in the context of social media and particularly Facebook, what constitutes the ‘liking’ of an image or idea. The idea of posting these comments is as much to give space to these arguments as it is to make a larger point that the ‘sickular left’ voices that are presumably behind the film love discussion, critique and disagreement. That to my mind is the way forward, not pre-empting the always-already hurt sentiments of the bhaiyya log whosoever they may be.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai: Questions that Linger: Akash Bhattacharya
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is no longer a mere documentary film. It is a powerful political symbol against the sectarian social engineering, manufacturing of communal tensions and state sponsored violence that litter the path of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent political ascendancy. The film’s success lies in rubbishing the development sans communalism claim of the new-age Hindutva. It is a film that will compel those who have chosen to accept the above-mentioned claim, particularly young voters with weak memories of the Post-Godhra Gujarat carnage (2002), to rethink their positions. The film also cautions those who have used the claim as a cover to express their Hindutva sympathies more freely than ever.
Thorough in its portrayal of the anatomy of the violence, the film highlights the essentially manufactured nature of the Muzaffarnagar “riot”. Three pillars of Indian democracy – election-oriented political parties, administration, and media – had converged on Muzaffarnagar with sinister intentions, the film points out. It is sensitive to the way communalism translates itself into existing tensions around caste and gender and in turn reconfigures them. The pathetic effects of sectarian violence on the lives of existing communities – their men, women, children and elderly – are granted the attention that they deserve.
Despite the thorough reading of that anatomy, however, some questions linger. One can hardly disagree with the director Nakul Singh Sahwney’s key observation: shrewd strategic manipulation has been central to the outbreak of the violence and to the upswing in the BJP’s political fortunes. But are people innately so passive and readily susceptible to political manipulation? What were the long-term processes within the village communities of Muzaffarnagar that made them susceptible to communal provocation? How did a union as powerful as the Bharatiya Kisan Union fall prey to communal polarization? Or was the famed communal unity of the sugarcane farmers of the region indeed so fragile?
The film excels in the anatomy of the communal violence as it happened but tells us little about the long-term trends that made such violence possible. Trends that perhaps escaped our eyes, until they suddenly boiled over in the form of massive communal polarization all over the country over the last two years. Why did the BJP’s machinations coincide with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) turning their back, even if temporarily, on the Muslims who have served them so well electorally? Were these political miscalculations? Or did an already-rising tide of Hindutva put them on the back-foot?
Politics, after all, is more often about drawing on existing social tendencies and enhancing them, rather than creating new tendencies. The Hindu Right has stolen a march over secular forces in identifying the social currents that could be potentially receptive to Hindutva and have repackaged Hindutva accordingly. Could these currents have been given non-sectarian, democratic directions?
As the secular camp basked in the glory of defeating the BJP during the days of United Progressive Alliance – I & II, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh quietly expanded its operations to new social and cultural terrains all over the country. It has, over the last decade, seemingly done enough to produce Hindutva as an identity that is flexible yet stable; suited to fulfil a diverse set of cultural roles. It can, at one and the same time, provide an identity to a socially uprooted and globally mobile work-force, rally the unemployed rural youth for corporate-championed industrialization, hold out the promise of social recognition for economically upwardly mobile lower castes, and reinvigorate the missionary zeal of the Hindu fundamentalist. What were the currents in Muzaffarnagar that lent themselves so readily to Hindutva?
Striking an affirmative note, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai implicitly suggests possible antidotes to sectarian politics instead of limiting itself to an expose. But in this case too, some questions linger. The film laments the way the class unity of the peasants has been fractured by divisions along religious lines, and in turn posits class unity and humanist ideals as potential unifiers. Is religious faith – that inseparable element of life in South Asia – then necessarily divisive? Do the vast traditions that pass by the name of “religion” have no democratic potential whatsoever? Is there nothing that can be mobilized from within them to counter Hindutva? The paltry presence of secular forces within the domain of faith gives the communal forces a free hand to convert faith into sectarian ideology. Unless we integrate questions such as these into our anatomy of communalism, the deep-rooted causes of the massive communal polarization of our times will probably not come to the fore. Neither will the roads towards democratic futures.
Akash Bhattacharya is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Image and the Cathectic; Likes and Shares on Facebook: Arif Hayat Nairang
For the past one month various images related to the protest screenings of the documentary film ‘Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai’ by Nakul Singh Sawhney are being circulated on facebook after the screening of the film was interrupted by members of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at Kirorimal College (KMC) in Delhi University. Some of the images floated on my ‘newsfeed’ as well but I didn’t know what to like and share in these images. I began to ask myself; what do I like here? Or to be more precise what would my liking the image signify? Would it seem that I like the Event that took place in Muzzafarnagar or would it present me as liking the event that took place in Kirorimal College? Do I like the fact that the image expresses concern or symbolizes the resistance against what happened in KMC? It took me time to like or share the images and in the next few pages I have tried to communicate the way through which I got there.
One functionality that I don’t like on Facebook is that the timeline and the newsfeed is delimited or restricted by the size and borders of the screen, in fact it’s a problem of ‘virtual reality’ in general; whatever we view and read is carried out within a frame. The problem stares right into my face on facebook as I scroll down on my for moments of virtual life that I might have missed but most often the internet connection is too bad and it takes too much time to load. However, even when the connection is better, the virtual life or the timeline is not available to us all at once. Virtual life in this way is mimetic of actual life, the only difference being that in virtual life I can scroll down for ‘old stories’ and scroll up for “new stories” but in actual life though we reflect back upon things and plan ahead as well, there is no readymade availability of old and new stories. The facebook timeline traces our life back to the time we were born. The birth is symbolized through a plain graphic faceless image of a child in nappies. If I consider myself and people of mine and older generations then we can say that, for all good and bad reasons, our birth was not an event which generated ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on facebook but the kids who were born after 4th February, 2004 and most of whom were ‘shot’ into the virtual life as soon as they ‘came out’ into the real life by their parents, siblings or relatives who opened facebook accounts for them. It is a common practice to have parents opening accounts or posting pictures of their young ones or opening full pages dedicated to them. Thus for these kids the virtual timeline mimics and can be a record of the actual timeline of their life because every event in actual life is marked by a ‘post’ or an ‘image’ on the screen. Thus, the virtual replicates the actual; it becomes an identical twin of the life we choose to believe as ‘actual’ and not the virtual, without even realising that most of the time we are moving as a blue dot on GPS, traversing the two dimensional space of a screen, taking a right here and a left there or circulating as an image of ourselves or our activities on facebook, switching between screens, ‘liked’ here and ‘shared’ there or not being viewed at all because the ‘timeline’ is delimited by the frame for the screen.
The question that emerges then is; how does this delimitation affect our virtual life, which is most often the life we live. According to data, if facebook were a nation it would be the third largest in the world. It reflects the extent of the virtual life. However, more than being a problem of the frame and the consequent delimitation, the problem is of the speed at which the timeline is filled with posts or the speed with which circulation of images happens in the virtual world. These speeds are too huge and so is the corresponding flow of stories, then what is left for us to ‘like’, ‘share’, ‘comment’ or act upon in general is what we see right in front of the eyes that which grabs and somehow holds our attention, that which has voyeuristic potential.
I have been paying close attention to my ‘timeline’ for quite some time now particularly in the time post BJP’s victory in the general election and have been, called a ‘facebook activist’ at times, so are my other friends who share posts which are critical or informative of the state and society in its oppressive and coercive avatars. I spent time thinking about it and realized that the discourse which builds around the statement i.e. “facebook activism” misses or rather highlights some very important points. First of all, the division between ‘user’ and the ‘activist’ here doesn’t stand when every ‘like’ and ‘share’ is telling of the person that you are or the way you present your ‘self’ in the virtual world. Infact, according to a study the “likes” on facebook can predict personal attributes such as “political leaning, age, gender and sexual orientation” (Ehrenberg 2013). In this light “social networking sites provide different possibilities for both revelation and concealment of aspects of personhood and social reality” (Dalsgaard 2008). So essentially we are all users here who present themselves in different ways on the screen like Goffman argues for a “presentation of self in the everyday life” (Goffman 1959) and like we have activists in the world outside the screen we have them here in the virtual world as well. ‘Facebook activist’ becomes then one of the different modes of presenting our being. In other words, while presenting our ‘self’ in the virtual world we behave quite similar to the way we do in actual life. We maintain and cultivate an image which we hold as ideal.
There are times when I am sitting in the library and some interesting thought strikes me, I type it down and put it up on facebook for a simple reason that it’s convenient and there are not many people who would want to listen to me otherwise, so the best way to convey a message and have someone listening to you is through facebook or other social media. Some of my friends who are not or choose not to be loud and vocal about their political standpoints are very straightforward or make it clear through their ‘activity log’ on facebook. Thus a facebook account more than a presenting of our self becomes an extension of our actual self. We mould it according to our needs and ‘usage’ which is reflected in the stuff we share. Someone may choose to share or like a photo of a god for fear of some warning about bad luck and disease that may befall if it is not shared or liked and someone may share articles and news expressing concern about a social issue or the sad political scenario. The range is indeed baffling like it is in actual life.
What keeps this process of sharing and liking going is a flow of images, in fact the fact that images can be shared has and continues to be the USP of facebook. If we consider the way facebook came into being then it is quite evident that Zuckerberg created it for purely voyeuristic purposes. The idea was that one could check pictures of other students studying and living on the campus at Harvard check their pictures and other details and proceed accordingly. As is shown in the movie The Social Network (2010) based on Facebook and its creator, the feature of relationship status alongwith the image changed the web utility completely and sets it apart from a regular dating website as here seemingly the interest in the other is much more than just dating, you follow them, like what they share, comment and make friends. So technically we arrive at an altogether different level of stalking and we have ‘facebook stalkers’ among so many other sets of people like facebook activists who cohabit within the same space, all sharing, liking and posting images, all following the norm of individuated surveillance which guides our life and worldview in the web of social relations that we establish in the virtual world. Within this web though it might be quite easy to say who is a voyeur but it’s not easy to demarcate who is not because the platform is meant to cultivate and produce voyeurs or people who have internalized the ethic of surveillance and are willing to surveils and be surveiled, so that it can keep going. Thus it’s perhaps safe to assume that an element of voyeurism sustains facebook or it is built into the logic of facebook through which it reproduces itself. The voyeurism is also reproduced in various ways sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that we don’t realize such that facebook acts back and moulds our behavior at the same time while we are moulding it because a particular kind of usage somehow can’t escape the schema which constitutes it. I will try to highlight this through examples below.
I keep sharing news pieces and articles related to state sponsored violence in Kashmir or anywhere else and I noticed that there are people who ‘like’ these posts, similarly one can see people even liking gory images of violence e.g. the recent image of the Muslim man who was stripped naked in Mangalore. Most of the time I try to look for people who have liked the image and if I know that person then I rest assured that what is being liked is not the image but perhaps a ‘concern’ for something which affects that person. But if I don’t know the person then it’s quite confusing sometimes. We like an image of violence on facebook whereas the same image generates repulsion in actual life e.g. the image of the man with folded hands and tears in his eyes during the Gujarat riots shakes and stirs us up and infact has a destabilizing effect but if the same picture is put up on facebook it will generate likes and shares. This is telling of the behavioral changes that a technological object, facebook in this case, can produce or create. Firmly supported by an ‘economy of likes’, where images are circulated at high speeds the violent image gets normalized and becomes one more among the many that are already there.
In my opinion what facebook along with the images that are circulated does is that alongwith ‘cathexis’, where one invests energy and emotion into an object, it also triggers a process of ‘de-cathexis’ where that energy and emotion is lost in the flow images which momentarily stare at you through the screen and then disappear into the unknown under the borders of the screen. In other words the banality of violence as it exists in actual life is also reproduced in the virtual through the circulation of images.
In this light the recent images of the “protest screenings of the movie Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai” proved to be very innovative as they gave a way which circumscribed the logic behind liking images on facebook to a certain extent and infact made an attempt to escape the schema. The images of the protest screenings were not out of the usual or full of awe, these simply showed people sitting and watching the movie on a screen. It is simply image of an event where moving images are displayed on a screen. But it attains immense symbolic value and produces a series of likes and shares on facebook because it expresses concern about the event at Kirorimal College. It becomes a signifier of protest and rallies people around it. It sets itself apart from so many other images because here the image in itself becomes a mark of protest and holds testimony to the fact that freedom of speech was violated in the event in KMC and also claims back that freedom. So a like on this image can’t be confusing, here you are indeed ‘liking’ the event, unlike my Kashmir news stories.
Thus, both the event at KMC and the multiple private screenings afterwards are reproduced and relived on screen as well. The image can’t escape a fleeting life because the screen is delimited and scrolling down is a task but because of the inherent symbolic value of the image it need not be a particular image that has to be found by scrolling down, with every screening in actual life there is an image up on facebook which repeats the same message. Thus the image lives and sustains by repetition and not by a voyeuristic logic of facebook. But what is missed, if not lost in this series of repetitions is the ‘Event’ i.e. ‘Muzzafarnagar’ itself. It lives as a remnant symbolized by the distant screen in the image, the screen which holds testimony to the Event. It continues to be “baaqi” in a chain of circulation of images where the screen which is its signifier slides under the signifier of the event that took place in KMC. Perhaps we also need to realize that it is time to shift focus from the event to the Event because facebook or social media might have made conveying a message easier but as far as conveying the meaning is concerned that has been complicated further.
Dalsgaard, Steffen. “The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life and Its Role in the US Elections.” Anthropology Today, Dec 2008: 8-12.
Ehrenberg, Rachel. “What a Facebook ‘like’ reveals .” Science News, 2013: 14.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Garden City, 1959.
Arif Hayat Nairang is at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics