Facebook Collisions: Notes on the State via the BSF Torture Video Spam and the Freedom of Expression Debate
February 25, 2012
By Shaunak Sen
Ranciere, a French historian once asked, what if our truest sorrow lay in not being able to enjoy the false ones? What if our real indignation resided in a drive to cling to the possibility of being angry at that which has historically angered or upset us?
In the last few days a chat-spam of a particular video has been surfacing frequently in numerous Facebook newsfeeds. Youtube counts suggest over 50,000 hits. It’s a gruesome video, terribly upsetting to watch – somewhere in the Murshidabad district in West Bengal, on a cold wintry December morning, a group of BSF men fully strip, hogtie and mercilessly beat up a young Bangladeshi villager with sticks. The fascinating thing about the Facebook newsfeed is of course that it situates in close proximity what seem like entirely disparate voices. These fleeting and ephemeral meetings sometimes yield unlikely collisions. As hoards of writers jostled at the Diggi Palace front lawns to register their protest against the Satanic Verses fracas, the other spam-like spread through various social media sites was of another germinal term: freedom of expression. This otherwise unlikely encounter lends a fresh vantage point to think of why this particular video has suddenly enjoyed the brand of currency it has, and how it gives us a fresh perspective through which to think of spaces of protest and ideas around freedom of expression, especially vis a vis the State.
Shocking videos with similar kinds of gruesome violence have circuited social networks before (videos of Kashmiri boys being stripped and paraded, Manipuri boys being made to crawl on the streets, houses being vandalized in the valley etc). There is, however, something markedly different about this particular video, both in its reportage across mainstream media, and in its reception in sites like Facebook and Youtube. The first thing that you notice is that there’s barely any of the usual abusive volleying to and fro, very little trolling, and almost no nitpicking in the comments about the moral accountability of the people involved. Infact, the video’s striking character then appears to be its sheer moral unambiguity, the cavil transparency of how reprehensible the act is and who ought to be punished for it. This rare clarity has to do with the basic optics via which we evaluate images of disturbing violence presented in front of us: who are the people concerned, and what is the context? These questions become the weighing scales through which the most lurid and horrifying actions caught on video become moderately understandable (if not, often enough, altogether exonerable). The all-tainting specter of the “Kashmir context’ seems to suggest that there’s more to the naked parading of the weeping Kashmiri teenagers than meets the eye, that the unbridled violence against Soni Sori in custody can be made sense of, given that it has to do with the turbulent context of Chhattisgarh. Popular perception of a strife-riven place seems to obfuscate and blunt what should be a basic response of varying latitudes of repugnance and anger.
The BSF video, interestingly, denudes viewers the opportunity to resort to the usual myopic certitudes of ‘context’. It exposes the violence along the borders of the country as endemic and unexceptional, and as not being restricted to States with a known fissiparous insurrectionary movement. Murshidabad is a sleepy obscure district 200 kms from Kolkatta that does not often find regular mention in the national mainstream media; the ‘victim’ is a slight Bangladeshi man, a brazenly unprovocative figure in popular imagination not even remotely close to the Kashmiri, the North Eastern or the other usual suspects that often populate our newspapers as the anonymous everyday dead. And that’s perhaps what has proved to be more unsettling about this video – the pixilated ‘poor image’ is a quintessential nowhere, that the army could be doing this just about anywhere, even closer home. It’s perhaps this amorphousness that has bolstered the video’s internet afterlife much after its fading away from primetime news.
Watching The Spam
The eleven minute video’s chilling to watch, and even tougher to describe. On what seems a bitingly cold wintry morning you see a glimpse of a bevy of cows being hurriedly heralded by short dark figures wrapped in shawls. There’s some commotion in the background (as some voices seem to be shouting ‘pakdo pakdo’). A uniformed BSF soldier is revealed, smiling priggishly and gesturing to a frail looking villager standing next to him. Over the course of the next few minutes (inaugurated by the ominous prophetic declaration “Bluetooth se bhejni hai ye’’ by the person recording the video) the lithe villager is stripped down entirely, made to lie prostrate on the ground, with a firmly positioned army boot brandished on his chest. In these minutes, the villager screams and cries to be let go, begging in Bengali, a language he perhaps knows is unintelligible to his tormentors. The perpetrators mull over the options of going about the ‘affair’: while one person recommends the cutting of ears (“Kaan Kaat do iske”), the video recordist (clearly a weathered veteran in this sort of a thing) gives more prudent advice about where in the body to strategically strike with sticks in order to avoid leaving conspicuous aftertraces. There’s also some debate and deliberation on whether people are to have tea, whether the villager in question is to be given tea, and incase the latter is predisposed, which utensil is to be used for it (the sisterfuck eats cow… the motherfuck)
In the midst of all of this someone notices that the stick being used to tie the villagers is too small. So the naked man waits for around a full minute as the camera languorously meanders from close ups of his face to his private organs, as someone fetches a stick of adequate length. The slow slurping sound of someone (possibly the person recording the video) sipping tea can be heard as the villager is hogtied to the long stick and the beating begins. The beating is terrifying, terrifying because the stick is raised very high in the air to hit, high enough for you to hope, in that split second that it’s a bluff, meant only to scare; and the contact between the skin and stick will actually be a gentler strike. But it falls directly on the bare flesh, unmoderated, with a nauseating precision concentrated on soft soles, knees, buttocks etc. One of the soldiers proudly asks the video recordist if he can be seen properly. There are people walking past, bikes going by, unturning.
The contemporary digital moment is marked most prominently by its tizzying visual delirium: in which the image becomes the principal currency for all sorts of expression. Events, times, States, institutions are remembered by photographs and images. Our “memory museums” are by and large, increasingly visual. A newly charged political items that come to be in such a time then, is what some have called the ‘poor image’. The poor image is the grainy, shaky low-resolution video/photo shot on phones, laptops, low-end cameras, surveillance cameras etc (whose illegibility itself often gives it a sense of authenticity and validation). Our capacity to easily wield and transfer these images through different circuits of the net then has to be used productively. Images have to be inextricably tagged on to events, images that are radically different from those circulated by the establishment. The defining image of the Iraq war for large segments of people are not so much the collapse of Saddam’s statue or his hanging, but the shocking Abu Gharaib pictures that spread through the internet at breakneck velocity. The variations of the ‘BSF tortures villager’ video then, should be proliferated such that it becomes something of a doppelganger for the bestial face that the army has so often unveiled.
Important alongside its image associate is also the nomenclature, the words we choose to call, name and remember these captured instances by. “Words” as Susan Sontag notes “alter, words add, words subtract”. Sizeable chunks of the media reporting the event referred to it as “beating up”, “violence”, and “humiliation”, clearly refraining from the word ‘torture’. It is important to stay alert to the possibility that the slippage from ‘torture’ to the aforementioned words often also moderates how we make sense of the actions in hindsight. After Abu Gharaib, the US government (Donald Rumsfield in no unclear words) expressly refused to use the word ‘torture’, the Sri Lankan government is known to have prosecuted those using the word ‘genocide’ in relation with its long standing internal ethnic violence, and words like ‘pogrom’ were stringently avoided in describing the mind-boggling massacres that took place in 1994 in Rwanda. Stronger, screechier, angrier words must be used – the softening of language often also smelts the residual memory of indignation. ‘Torture’, and all the moral burdens inescapably tied to the word must be branded irrevocably on to the army.
Slippages in language also signpost a coarsening of meaning in a different way. Public debate around instances such as these are often couched in the syntax of ‘black sheeps’ and ‘rotten apples’. The incident then becomes an aberration, a one off exception brought about by specific notorious people that just need to be cleansed and/or expunged from an otherwise benign structure. The sheer enormity of the numbers of cases that’ve been reported in the last many years by various human rights organizations (for details read Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s piece on Kafila) along the country’s borders should expressly suggest otherwise. The question then, is whether the actions are representative of a larger, lived culture, an everyday. Torture, brutal violence and an eerie apathy for human dignity appears systemic, engrained and almost authoritatively condoned. It appears as the mundane, the quotidian in the lives of people we see in this video. Its the slow pace of the video that is truly scary about it : people casually talk about drinking tea, there are others sauntering about, going about ordinary things ‘normally’ while the stripping and thrashing mercilessly goes on meters away. The historical antecedent of the BSF video is not so much the image of fascists celebrating deaths in Warsaw, but of the image of the white man who’s just lynched black(s) in the early 20thcentury. The semantics is not so much the feverish chest-thumping celebration of war, but a languorous, half-bored, almost frivolous exercise of a brutal humdrum amusement. It’s this cavalier, callous half-heartedness that is bone-chillingly revelatory.
Then comes an even scarier thought. The phone camera isn’t just documenting the whole incident; it is its chief provocateur, its principle instigator. The narrative isn’t of concealment or subterfuge but of unabashed exhibition infront of the video camera. It’s the soldiers staking claim to the economy of images around them; positioning their own identities as images in the local ecosystem of Murshidabad (reports also suggest that the video was made to be spread around the region as a warning). These soldiers interpret their actions as valorous, giving the video an almost erotic, titillating pornographic charge. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta observes in his piece on the Kashmir video:
“Why do coerced nakedness and humiliation make such a perfectly repulsive pair? Perhaps because we think of being naked only with our selves, or with someone whom we can be intimate with, or who is able to care for us. Children can be naked to their parents, lovers can be naked to each other. A patient can be naked to his or her doctor… In any instance, being naked, somehow suggests a condition of freedom, or care, or intimacy… It is this condition of intimacy and care that is twisted and turned inside out when nakedness is coerced. Coerced nakedness takes place in contexts that are the very opposite of intimacy and care. It invariably takes place in contexts that are cold, violent, brutally impersonal but horrifyingly intimate. This is a kind of nakedness that lays bare the darkest secrets of power. That it really doesn’t care about the humanity of the person in its clutches. In its transparency, what it makes most naked, is power itself…
There is also the anonymous nakedness of boys’ locker rooms, and the cool distant nakedness of fashion models. And this video combines the most perverse qualities of both. It shows how our body is susceptible to being annexed by the State in its most harshly biological, primeval, basic state. It reminds how the body’s is always in this state of exception, always running the risk of being apprehended, exposed and paraded in the cold in its most foundationally physical state. After the Kashmir boys video, State officials had apparently claimed that the video was not from Kashmir. The question to ask now then is: where is this not from?
Spam(s), the State and Expressing Freedom
The chance encounter between the BSF video and the range of Rushdie related material on FB walls catalyzed a semantic spillage, where the glaring questions afflicting one start haunting the other. The BSF video reminds one of the unabashedly barbaric face that the state so often unleashes. I also got reminded with renewed vigour that it’s the Indian State that has had a long and unrelenting history of squashing dissenting voices, not some obscure ‘lunatic fringe’. It’s the state regime that has picked up and brutalized Kashmiri boys for supposedly ‘incendiary’ status updates, that has disallowed messaging in the whole region, that kidnaps and tortures Manipuri artists, that violently disbands peaceful congregations protesting against nuclear plants in Koodankulum, and that prosecutes and incarcerates doubtful voices from central India as Maoists. It is the State that reprobates disparaging comments about the army even in mainstream Hindi movies, and books public commentators under draconian acts of sedition. The state has been the principle muzzler, not the extremist religious minority. Yet suddenly the narrative seems to have been turned on its head, and it’s the state that is being accused of infirmity! It’s a curious twist, and begs to be asked how an otherwise unforgiving state that asphyxiates most political dissent metamorphoses into a weak-willed, gutless, jelly-kneed entity too polite to risk hurting anyone’s feeling, no matter how obviously facetious the issue is. The bigger question to be thought of then, is about the State’s relation to the domain of the artistic expression at large.
There’s a story, rumouredly recounted by the Italian playwright and director Dario Fo (The story may well not be about Fo, but anecdote has tremendous resonance in the presentcontext.). Fo1 and his troupe of actors would travel to various factories in Italy, performing plays and short improvised pieces inside factory precincts for workers. They would present improvised vignettes on issues most topical to the factory they were in, and would usually try and have a forum with the workers after to initiate discussion on what they saw. One time, they came upon a particularly obdurate factory management that refused to allow pieces on anything that could possibly effect the production indirectly. They intractably cancelled out almost all the issue-pieces – on work hours, pay, equal pay for women etc, save one. An argument had broken up within the factory inmates about smoking only weeks before. There was a compound outside the factory that most workers would go to during break times to smoke. Some workers however complained to the management about this, insisting that smoking was a nuisance for them even in the compound and that the smokers should be asked to go outside the premises to smoke. This had snowballed into a full blown issue, and without permission to perform on other topics, Fo’s troupe presented a piece on it, and opened the floors to a debate. In the course of the debate that lasted for over a couple of hours, it soon became clear that while the majority of the employees did not have problems given the size of the compound, a small group of workers unreasonably refused to budge from their demand. As the recalcitrant margin refused to yield, the management stepped in, arguing that it had to listen to everyone’s opinion, and smokers would henceforth have to go out of the compound to smoke.
As the evening ended Fo realized something had clearly gone wrong. There was no anger anywhere on how the management had sheathed discussion on the most crucial issues of everyday work, just a grumbly murmur about the management’s tendency to appease everyone. Fo’s troupe had inadvertently contributed in a dilution of some sorts.
A sizeable chunk of editorial responses to the Rushdie-Litfest flashpoint (or in the Taslima Nasreen, Balbir Krishen instaces) is shrouded in the vocabulary of shame and being let down by a spineless government arm-twisted by a dogmatic margin. The story of the Italian troupe however nudges us towards trying to configure another response: that the state hasn’t really buckled, or let us down, it is barely trading faces. It pushes towards a larger structural analysis where the critique of the state is not on the basis of weakness and impotence reflected in its supposedly meek capitulation, but a crucial shifting of emphases that’s happening here.
The Rushdie fracas is a veritable catharsis, a venting where the onus of absolute intolerance is deflected on to other quarters. It’s the State staking its claim in some of the basic ideas on which the country is said to be founded: of us being a dignified liberal, tolerant democracy. This visage of being indecisive and meek helps fortify the image of an expressly tolerant State which never curbs any form of expression – even from the most unreasonable conservative margins. “Irresolute’ and ‘invertebrate’ are after all, easier words to live with than ‘absolute’ and ‘tyrannical’. The only brutishly intolerant eyesore in this elaborate facelift then is the extremist minority, which is alienated even more given that it cannot respond in a critical language the middle class expects it to.
In a way it has to do with the State’s general relationship to cultural dissent of any sort at large. In a recent event in Delhi, the union home minister P.Chidambram called for a ‘rejection of counterculture’. Any culture that tried to argue against the large mining and power plants takeovers (in central India) he claimed, ought to be rejected. Crucial here, then is how the state imagines ‘counterculture’ generally. In a conflict that has to do with whole populations’ struggle to hold on to a basic way of life, its livelihood and dignity, any dissenting note against the State’s maxim then becomes a rejection-worthy ‘counterculture’. In such a climate of proscription a new brand of ‘counter-cultural’ space is produced – one where the suppressing agent is not the State but a group that has anyway been historically demonized and stereotyped – the religious Muslim extreme. This new counter-cultural space also re-sketches new boundaries – dissent and freedom of expression become issues primarily restricted to the realms of Art/academics/Literature. It becomes something that is battled over in Literature festivals, art exhibitions and academic essays; and not in what are overtly ‘political’ contexts. ‘Security’ in such a scenario becomes the higher sacred narrative, the single ‘pure position’ the State invokes and stands by, nullifying everything that threatens to disrupt it. This cloistered discussion on dissent then becomes eerily similar to the debate around smoking in the Italian factory.
Our anger at moments like this does come from a realization that freedom to dissent is not present sui generis. Its intensity comes from the absence of there being anything else to vent and wax eloquent about other than smoking. It comes perhaps, also from a subliminal desire to hold on to whatever little space we have to express our anger.
The author is an Mphil student in CInema Studies at JNU. Photo credit: Tim Fite, Over the Counter Culture