Reverse Swing: The Culture of Conquest
It might take some more time for us to realise, as a people, that what we assume today as the preening, strutting glory vested in this culture of conquest is, in fact, our very defeat.
“As in all previous history, whoever emerges as victor still participates in that triumph in which today’s rulers march over the prostrate bodies of their victims. As is customary, the spoils are borne aloft in that triumphal parade. These are generally called the cultural heritage… There has never been a document of culture which was not, at one and the same time, a document of barbarism.” -- Walter Benjamin – ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’
And this is how India enriches its culture in a season of tough love. As a nation-state, India has turned on its fatal charms and is demanding that she be loved – ‘somewhat in the manner mothers are loved’, as Jean-Paul Sartre once described French expectations from its colony in Algeria. Only, the demand is being made at gunpoint. It is the benevolence of the gun that is now on its way to define Indian culture and inform its demos.
What ‘India’ is doing in Kashmir – benignly boot-camping in every home, street, square, and town, with menacingly armed soldiers (one for every ten Kashmiri, as reported by Jean Dreze), oozing love from their helmeted faces and brotherhood packed in every pellet they fire at youngsters – will not be unfamiliar to addicts of Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam cinema. It is par for the course. The hero, a toughie with a concealed heart of gold, sets his eyes upon a nubile lass unaccustomed to the course of true love. She spurns, mocks, spites, and slaps him. The toughie decides these are self-evident signs of love. He chases, harasses, harangues, teases, paws, molests, and violates her until, in a moment of epiphany under thunder and lightning, she too is convinced that THIS is true love and experiences a cathartic meltdown.
To a national population weaned, since its childhood, on this fairy tale that a woman’s ‘no’ cannot mean anything but a ‘yes’, such romance is a symbol of natural justice. It is merely a question of using a little force with some entirely unsolicited songs and some intimidation, coercion, and aggression (including verbal abuse, humiliation, and patronising lectures on the fragility of women on the side) for the damsel to obliterate the memory of all the indignities she was subjected to and accept the boy – now transformed into an ideal male and an ideal citizen – as her eternal partner. Grateful for the cessation of atrocities against her, she is reduced to a slobbering bundle of coy remorse at her earlier resistance.
Stockholm syndrome, some might say. But Indian cinema has surely been a more effective educator of its masses than the average Indian school. In the universe of popular cinema, the school/college is an unabashedly patriarchal, male space into which other genders are allowed entry by default. Here, females step into academia merely to pass time before they eventually assume their assigned domestic duties. Schooling and education is, essentially, a male privilege, an arena for the expatriation of his natural libido and assertion of his natural rights over the submissive female body.
The majoritarian imaginary of the nation too works on a parallel track. Radical poet Harindranath Chattopadhyaya once succinctly described Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s post-Independence strategy of ‘integrating’ India, as: ‘What is mine is mine; what is thine is also mine’.
Since the earliest moments of Indian Independence, Kashmir too has experienced this covetousness. All protest and denial and expression of disinterest by Kashmir was brushed away and rationalised as hidden affection. The uneasy courtship lasted seven decades until, as increasingly in real life as well as in films, unable to accept the rejection, the boy resolves his perceived sense of righteous insult by burning the girl with acid or smothering her, so that his object of affection does not cede to someone else. It is fatal love, in which there can only be victory, no defeat. It is the one-way path of macho conquest, as Kashmir discovered on August 5.
The question to consider, though, is what does the sense of conquest do to the culture of a person, a nation, laying claims to democratic principles? What significant features does it manifest and what contradictions does it generate?
It is, most certainly, a sociological case study to observe how the idea of ‘conquest’ comes as a salve to a ‘wounded civilization’, struggling with its own paranoia of inadequacy inherited through a perceived process of millennial losses. Good old Freud called it a ‘castration complex’. It is the product of rather excessive love for the mother and the motherland. The Indian national movement unleashed this subterranean desire for the affections of (and affection for) a fictional mother-figure called ‘Bharat Mata’, whose abstract presence in many male minds soon subsumed reality. Mother-love became a trope. It was inevitable then, in Freudian terms, that the competing father-figure of Gandhi had to be eliminated in the very infancy of the nation-state.
As a society, we are still coming to terms with this forbidden love and it is, perhaps, the reason why we get ecstatic over small incremental victories – in war, in sports, in statistical peaks of the economic index. There is nothing much to boast in terms of poverty alleviation or development indices like health, housing, literacy, jobs, or on the social front in terms of egalitarianism or justice or rights.
But, in a season when there is no evident conquest in sight, we are getting adept at manufacturing one. It can be a riot—a pogrom—that kills a few thousand innocents. The victors can then mark their forehead with a blood-red tilak and leer victoriously with drawn swords. These leers have now entered the parliament too. There can also be the blood-sport of the daily lynching of easy, isolated targets amongst the minorities, which has now acquired the status of a small-scale industry. The lynch-mobs can even take videos of themselves hard at work and proudly post it on social media for the rest to gloat at. And the courts will acquit them (as in the Pehlu Khan case this week) for ‘lack of evidence’. This has become a familiar judicial phrase now in cases related to Hindutva terror, like that of Aseemanand or Pragya Thakur – there is always ‘a lack of evidence’. Like in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’, “…when they reach the scene of the crime – Macavity’s not there”.
At a governmental level, there can be self-proclaimed conquests like demonetisation or surgical strikes on enemies like ‘corruption’ or ‘terrorists’, which help reassure us of our perennially winning ways. The latest act of snaring Kashmir through deceit too, falls into this category of manufacturing a conquest. But some serious moral and cultural questions do emerge.
I have no words of solace or apology or commiseration or remorse for the people of Kashmir. I believe what India has done is indefensible and illegal and that if we indeed have a judicial system at work, India will likely lose the Kashmir case in its own Supreme Court. That is another matter. But I am certainly enraged about the steady reports of the barbarity of Indian forces during the unconscionable lockdown of the Valley for the 12th day now. The fact-finding report of four independent, highly regarded civil society members, the testimony of Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, editor, Kashmir Times (who has also filed a case in the Supreme Court), Sankarshan Thakur’s field diary in The Telegraph, Siddharth Varadarajan’s field report in The Wire, the media coverage by BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, HuffPost and others all mention the daily humiliation ordinary Kashmiris are being subjected to. Pregnant women losing babies as our brave soldiers prevent them from hostile manoeuvres like reaching hospitals to produce anti-national progeny. Seven and ten-year-olds with faces disfigured by pellet wounds lying in clinics that have run out of medicines. Little boys held back in detention camps and thrashed just to set an example to their parents. It’s the apogee of Indian culture.
Has the iron really entered the soul of the average Indian citizen? Are we on the verge of recasting ‘Ahimsa paramo dharmaha’ to ‘Himsa paramo dharmaha’? Does the Indian citizen endorse such blatant misuse of its army? Has the general sense of alienation from Kashmir reached such levels of indifference to their pain? All the mothers and fathers who feel proud to see their sons in uniform, did they really bargain for their kids being part of a colonial army wreaking ravage on their own? Do you have nothing to say to scheming politicians who, in the name of national interest, use your children for personal aggrandisement? What happens when these boys return home with blood on their hands of innocent civilians? What kind of psychological wrecks would they have become from having worked overtime at torturing poor, peasant women? Was it you who taught them to puncture the eyes of teenagers with pellet shots? What is your claim to be religious, you who worship with flower and water and chandan and tulsi; you who visit temples and godmen; you who observe vrats and poojas? Is there a larger morality than personal salvation you can access?
It is a cultural disintegration of catastrophic proportions that the majority of women and men of this land, irrespective of party affiliations, are choosing to stay quiet. That, seduced by the spectacle of the culture of conquest, we voluntarily squander basic humanity or civilizational inheritance, such as these might be. Mothers are slavering over their murderous sons. Sisters are tying rakhis around the wrists of their complicit brothers. Every heinous crime committed in our name is being applauded and condoned. There is a sense of disproportionality to the public drama of legitimacy being accorded every crime. All vestiges of Constitutional proprieties are being collectively guillotined. And yet, ironically, we speak a language of moral superiority and cultural vanguardism to the world.
It might take some more time for us to realise, as a people, that what we assume today as the preening, strutting glory vested in this culture of conquest is, in fact, our very defeat. India might once have been the name of a civilisation. But we might be fast becoming the name of a pathological disorder. That would, then, finally be the irreversible conquest of culture.