In the recent controversy over the arrest of the travel vloggers Ebin and Libin who rode high on popularity with lakhs of subscribers through their Youtube channel E Bull Jet, it is very hard not to side with the two young men. The flamboyant pair whose hugely popular travel — or ‘van life’ — videos have a massive following especially among male adolescents and youth — are school drop-outs and have a history of rising from severe social disadvantage — literally, of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The two young men, despite their excesses, pull at your heartstrings. Their smile, their slang, their sense of excitement on the road, the innocent gawking — all of it looks disarmingly innocent. It is also true that the crime they committed was not major; nor is justice handed out evenly. That is, such crimes around vehicles and driving are not new and it is not at all clear if the powerful who commit such crimes are tackled in the same way. Therefore the video which showed the brothers being hauled into the police van was painful for many of us (including me) — Ebin wept aloud, “adikkalle saare! Njaan onnum cheithilla … kolapaathakiyeppole enne kondupokunnu….” (don’t beat me please, sir. I didn’t do anything wrong . … I am being taken away like a murderer). That despondent wail somehow refuses to get out of my head; that is why I need to write this.
The vloggers were not served well by their fans; as the news spread of the confiscation of the brothers’ decked-up caravan, fans, including many very young children, began to express their protest vehemently on the social media. Some threatened to ‘burn Kerala’; some threatened to commit suicide; others warned the police against a popular rising. Clearly, the young men were going places with Youtube paying them considerable sums; they were rising from poverty. They were buying land, building a fancy house, getting new fancy vehicles. It is no surprise at all they had such a huge (male) following in Kerala. Male school drop-out rates are higher here than female drop out rates. Work pays well for working class young men pays better than elsewhere but is erratic and certainly, given the soaring gaps between the rich and the poor, the prospect of rising in the class hierarchy just through labour is ever-distant. In such a context, two young men making a plucky decision to become travel vloggers after having lost everything in a business venture cannot but become a peg on which many, many youngsters hang their dreams.
What refuses to leave me, besides Ebin’s harrowing cry, is his ever-sunny smile and cheery optimism. His voice crackles through all the videos in the typical central Kerala accent (though the brothers are from a northern district, their cultural roots are not there) and it brims with eager enthusiasm even when he recounts their days of want and experience of isolation and discrimination on account of being poor. It fizzes equally with excitement when he recounts the ways in which they break road rules and fool the government on the road to evade toll payments — one cannot help smiling, if one is not on the side of the oppressor that is the state in this country, even if one may not approve.
No wonder, people have been deeply divided: while supporters of the CPM-led government have been deeply critical of the duo on the social media and elsewhere, dubbing them ‘law-breakers’ showing scant respect for the agents of the state and a ‘bad example to children’, others have pointed out that their videos are largely ‘harmless’ and that the hand of the government is rather too heavy.
Yet it is surprising to see that even the more sensible commentators in Kerala have been unable to step back and take note of the broader lessons from this debate. Curiously enough, both opponents and supporters of the E Bull Jet brothers seem to agree, at least implicitly, on one thing: that they are, in the last analysis, like children. To their opponents, the brothers have been childish, petulant. To their supporters, they are childlike, innocent, lovable. In different ways, they participate in the construction of the infantilized citizen. To their opponents, the E Bull Jet brothers and their followers must be punished firmly. And Pinarayi Vijayan’s Big Papa state, in the making since the 2018 floods at least, has not spared any pains — the police has, allegedly, filed cases against youngsters who posted inflammatory statements (but of course those who made similar statements when Vijayan himself was insulted have of course never been confronted thus). The supporters, who include young people who have sought emancipatory self-building, social justice, and full citizenship, have called to protect these ‘harmless’ people living their lives without hurting anyone. Even as they rightly oppose the state’s high-handedness, they still participate in the infantilization of these citizens.
What both sides fail to see (especially the second-mentioned)is that the E Bull Jetters may be ‘innocent’, but they act out a form of citizenship that has been perhaps long coming in this state, at least from the time when people’s claims to resources in Kerala began to be viewed not as rights, but as doles — handouts, charity, even — of the state and the culture of self-help became widespread. The E Bull Jet brothers are clearly products of the self-help culture — they radiate neoliberal positivity. There is constant focus on themselves — and the constant effort to draw in their (presumed male and youthful viewers) into their world and selves with the address ‘guys’ — coolness and cuteness combined. In their videos they tell their audience that they should not blame circumstances or others for their poverty and that if they try hard enough, they can rise up and triumph over it.
It is important to see that this does not mean that they lack ethics or respect for the state. Many commentators have displayed a certain cool elitism discussing them – claiming that they are crude imitators of ‘macho’ in popular Malayalam movies and politics. The evidence they point towards to make this argument is the fact that they did reach out to the MP Suresh Gopi – known once for his macho rule-breaker roles in Malayalam movies — and the boorish politician P C George. However, the E Bull Jet videos do not provide any serious evidence for this claim; to the contrary, they often insist on ethical behaviour. For example, Ebin and Libin in their videos insist that vloggers should not focus on making an income on Youtube, and that they should not promote stuff unethically just for an income. They entreat their fans to wear masks, to drive safely, and not to forget road rules while indulging in their adoration. Indeed, they take pride in becoming achievers within the ethical frame of the neoliberalised state and society. Far from being rebels, the two seem to be passive, obedient, docile even, not demanding anything of either the state or capitalism. Their critiques of the state — for example, the complaints about constant checking on the road — are mild and innocuous, and fooling authorities by pretending to be an ambulance etc. constitutes their utmost act of disobedience. The sole mistake — one that they could not help making — was that they could not control their supporters, but then this surely is not theirs alone.
Why, then, are the E Bull Jet brothers not celebrated as paragons of neoliberal subjects? Indeed, if one stays within the framework of neoliberalised state and society, they deserve to be celebrated thus — for what could be rightly regarded as their enterprising nature and their lack of dependence on state largess. That is where, however, the risk arises. The E Bull Jet brothers zoomed ahead not through enterprise that is readily framed as productive activity in the conservative, familiar sense. Rather, they appear to be consuming constantly — in their travel, they consume places and people, and sometimes in crude and even ethnocentric ways. They seem to revel in their mobility, and the possibility of consumption — and this only reveals the huge void in democratic political education available to young people who do not manage to enter university. The production of ‘fun’, however apolitical (and the E Bull Jet videos are full of precisely such apolitical fun), is fraught with risk as it draws together the affect of potentially thousands of viewers which the state may find excessive and troublesome. Ironically, is these brothers had chosen to become shady real estate dealers destroying the very body of Kerala, they would have been covered in glory for sure. This risk is borne in general by the consuming-subject who passes off readily as the citizen in the eye of the neoliberalised state. If the latter promotes such a subject, given the ever-present possibility of excess in and through consumption, the state also holds the consuming subject on a tight leash. And when the consuming subject appears to be straining at the leash — committing petty rebellion — the state finds itself fully justified in cracking down on them. This is not just because the E Bull Jet brothers lack social and cultural capital but also because their cultural intervention produced a community, especially of young men and adolescents from circumstances similar to them who the state find a threat when they mass — but not a political threat, just a ‘law and order problem’, irksome, nevertheless.
Far from being just children (whose distance from adult worlds allows their behaviour to be often subversive), then, these are infantilised citizens. It is painful in more than one way. At one level, the cry ‘adikkalle saare, njaan onnum cheitilla’ reveals the utter powerlessness of the infantilised citizen — it may remind one of a hapless child being dragged into the headmaster’s room for a thorough hiding, but it is actually the astonished scream of a neoliberal subject who is suddenly infantilized. At another level, it is the unbearably saddening cry of helplessness of Kerala’s poor, duped by the neoliberal elites, their very dreams stolen. One’s very soul is racked by it, even when one does not share those dreams.
What, indeed, is the antidote to this? I close my eyes, thinking and Hadiya’s face rises in the darkness there. Yes, looking young, fresh, utterly innocent. Hadiya, coming out of the illegal custody of her family, and braving the government, the police, the evil agents of Hindutva, the community elites, the hostile media, Facebook leftist radicals, heartless rationalists, clueless liberal muslims, her own family — still shouting with all her might, “I married him on my own accord. He is my husband!” The tears prick my eyelids and my body quivers. Yes, as long as young people like her exist, I am sure the antidote will be found.