Friday, October 12, 2012

The Reascription of Hurt: When Abu Gharaib came to Kashmir

[This paper was presented at the conference The State of Hurt: Sentiment, Politics, Censorship organized by Sri Venkateshwara College at the South Campus, University of Delhi in October, 2012.]

The Political Case Study of Matilda

Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French writer of the last century, wrote about the particular relationship the concept of hurt has with its public recognition. He wrote about the shadow that necessarily falls between the experience of hurt and the act of its acknowledgment by others. His poem Matilda Who Told Lies, And Was Burned To Death was apparently a cautionary tale meant for children but he laid within it an utterly adult political equation. This equation helps us understand some links between the different branches of the Indian State and the experiences of hurt in Kashmir.

The best way to read a cautionary tale is to avoid the caution and to savour the drama. In sum, the poem is this: Matilda is a young girl with a particular character flaw – she lies a lot. The first time she lies and cries fire all of London’s fire-brigades misinterpret her call to be real and come to her rescue, sousing a perfectly good house with gallons of water. The second time when her crisis call was actually real, the disreputed Matilda keeps on shouting from her house windows and no one on the streets buys her version of the story. ‘That night,’ Belloc writes, ‘a fire did break out’, something did happen, but the onlookers purposely disbelieved it. By the time her aunt came back, both Matilda and the house were burnt. 

What is interesting in Belloc’s poem is not so much that Matilda once lied about her hurt, but that the hurt itself is always subject to its recognition. All experiences of hurt are intimately tied in with the patterns in which they are recognized by people and institutions around you, whether the onlookers on the street or the fire-brigade of the State. And more notably, if you can play around with these patterns of recognition, that is, if you can disgrace a young girl as a perpetual liar, then you can effectively play around with the experience and consequences of her all too real hurt. The poem hangs on more on how you recognize hurt than hurt itself. 

In May 2004, by the time American television network CBS’s 60 Minutes and a Seymour Hersh article in The New Yorker, had already broken out the story of the extensive torture in the Abu Gharaib prison, the American secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld managed to quibble a response not so much to the hurt of the Iraqi prisoners but, what was more important to him, to the patterns of recognizing that hurt. What he did was quibbling over words and their technical meanings. ‘What has been charged so far,’ he said, ‘is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture…I'm not going to address,’ he said point blank, ‘the ‘torture' word.’ 

It is precisely this understanding that once you appropriate the perception of hurt, you can effectively control any political crisis it might trigger, that makes the Pentagon use the choicest of euphemisms, effectively hollowing out words, effectively censoring their actual content. This is the understanding that made Rumsfeld call ‘torture,’ ‘abuse’. And when the Iraqi prisoners were kept awake for more than a hundred hours, at which any confession can be extracted from any one, which the medieval inquisitors called tormentum insomniae when they used it against suspected witches, this same practice Pentagon chose to christen with an inoffensive term used by doctors when they cure American suburbans of insomnia: ‘sleep management’. And it is again this understanding that made one American teenager – I suspect there are many more – think that ‘water-boarding’ somehow involved water-skis. 

However there is another layer to Belloc’s poem, which gives us an important clue about how different parts of the Indian State contend with the Kashmiri expression of hurt. And that clue is this: when Matilda faked the fire, the city responded, and when Matilda cried herself hoarse with the actual flames nearing her, the city was indifferent. What the poem really rests on, over and above Matilda’s habit for lying, is the necessary mismatch between the call for help and the outlook of those to whom this call is directed, its drama lies in the space of this breach. It suggests that there is nothing intrinsic or natural in the experience of hurt that will lead to its public recognition, that reaching this recognition is actually a political process. That between feeling the hurt and getting it acknowledged lies a vast space of political permutations. 

It is in this space that my argument lies, a space given to distortion, to twisting of perceptions, to re-ascription of causes of the hurt, to the very misidentification of the hurting body, to finally obscuring the very category of ‘what did happen’. It is because of this space that lies between hurt and its cognizance by others that in September, 2010, one Kashmiri in the town of Tangmarg, as he was interrogating the habitual Indian claim of Kashmir being its integral part, asked the deputed Indian all-party delegation: ‘Why don’t you feel our pain if we are a part of your body?’ His question substitutes the premise of a natural connection – a part of your body – with an enquiry that is unmistakably political in nature – why don’t you. Hurt does not simply or naturally tend towards its identification. Between these two falls a shadow. 

When Abu Gharaib came to Kashmir

In the same month when the Kashmiri in Tangmarg asked that question, something else happened in Kashmir. In fact a cluster of virtual events happened. These evidenced how various limbs of the Indian State use censorship for managing political crises precipitated by the expression of hurt by Kashmiris. And integrated with the acts of censorship they use a language of hurt that is re-choreographed for their own purposes.

On the night between 8th and 9th September, 2010, a video, captured through a cellphone camera, started circulating on Facebook sites and Youtube channels that was tagged ‘Kashmir – India’s Abu Gharib [sic]’. The video shows four Kashmiri boys being paraded naked by Indian policemen and paramilitary forces in a Kashmiri village. Step by step, this is confirmed. With every passing second, the video populates its own context, giving possible hooks to peg its veracity. You notice the khakis and the olive green fatigues of the escorting policemen who are abusing the boys in Hindi or Urdu. The policemen – their accents, abuses, language – are north Indian. We take another step and soon discover from one of the policeman that the four boys have made the police chase them since the morning, so this enforced nakedness, this open parade to the police station or the camp is a humiliating retribution and over the three minutes or so of the video, it is this humiliation which expands and hangs over every second of the low quality recording. They pass the freshly harvested village fields and towards the end of the video, the women of the village see the boys and can be heard lamenting. You take another step in giving a world to the contents of the video. The language of the lament is Kashmiri – Hata Khodayo, akin to Oh God. The video offers another marker: the site of this humiliating passage is Kashmir.

When the agents of hurt belong to a militarized State the expression of that hurt by the people is not a simple opportunity of intervention + self-legitimation for the State but instead a political crisis. This crisis is sought to be diffused by the subdivisions of the State by an array of at least three kinds of overlapping tactics – censorship, both covert and overt, denial and finally the one which is the shrewdest, the very appropriation of the language of hurt in order to infinitely defer accountability. The rest of my work in this paper involves outlining these tactics through which the State and Central government ministries and Indian security forces manage political crises in Kashmir and which finally expose the ungainly and split life of the State, with its different branches – for example, the Home ministry and the State Human Rights Commission – offering different versions of the same story and different desired ends.

Conversations with Kashmiri friends over the last few years have given a picture of how surfing the internet in Kashmir is a particularly odd experience. One of them said it was always like opening a book with a few pages missing. At times, and these times come not infrequently, the whole book goes missing for a while. This simile of the book missing its pages elaborates the tactic of covert censorship. Within hours of the upload of the Kashmir’s Abu Gharib video, it began its hide and seek with the online viewers. Over the next few days it would disappear arbitrarily from the Youtube channels which uploaded it. The Facebook posts that linked to the video vanished, even user discussions of the video which happened to mention the title faded away. 

I remember it was the second year of my PhD and I was trying to access the video from my hostel room in London. Many times, the video link I would open would become defunct within a matter of hours. A Delhi based writer, writing two days after this video came to light explained my problem. He wrote that this disappearing act ‘suggested what has been suspected for some time, that the Indian State – or some of its ‘organs’ – ‘lean’ on platforms like Facebook and Youtube to ensure that content that is problematic for its image simply gets erased.’ This suggestion was only confirmed with the suppressive Information Technology Act the year after. But that week, the collective effort of many users, Kashmiri and otherwise, ensured that, through repeated downloads and uploads, the video has an extended life despite it being followed by an invisible censor.

However, once it had dug its heels on the internet, different elements in the Indian State adopted a second tactic. They, like the onlookers on Matilda’s street, purposely disbelieved what they saw. In this headstrong tactic of denial, we come upon a concept of belief that is not so much an empirical exercise with the given text but instead a political investment in it, which always makes it yield its content selectively. The breach between seeing and believing was reopened into a space of political contestation. 

‘A senior police officer in the Valley,’ the Indian Express reported, said it looked like an 'old video' as if the age of the recording tempered its content. Southward in Delhi, the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram immediately usurped the language of trust and potential trustworthiness, posing the specter of authentication. He said ‘No one has been able to authenticate the video so far’ and that he had asked security agencies to find out whether anybody featuring in the video had spoken out. Chidambaram waits for the moving image to be confirmed by particular voices. The visual text itself is hollowed out. By itself it shows nothing at all, always needing external sanctification. This trait of the moving image is mined politically. ‘Until it is authenticated,’ Chidambaram said, resting on a deferral, ‘and the persons identified, I think it would be unsafe to rely on such a video.’ The Outlook reported that the Union Home Minister ‘did not elaborate on what steps were being taken to ascertain the authenticity of the video’. The idea of authenticity then is as much a political deployment as it is a laboratory process. This was confirmed when the CRPF spokesperson Prabhakar Tripathi was quoted as denying the authenticity of the video in all perpetuity, thus making the actual determination redundant  – ‘Such a thing,’ he said, ‘is not possible in Kashmir,’ adding that ‘this video can never be proved to be genuine.’ Here deferral shows what it is nesting within itself: denial.

However, the third and the final tactic that different parts of the Indian State adopt is the one which interests me the most because it is the most crafted, the most difficult to sieve out. This is when they appropriate the very language of hurt and transform it etiologically, that is, they play with the idea of what causes hurt. In the young graphic novelist Malik Sajad’s short piece ‘The Kashmir Intifada’ he has an Indian army soldier address the media during the stone-pelting days earlier on the streets of downtown Srinagar in the summer of 2010. The soldier’s statement captures the form of the Indian security apparatus’ tactic wonderfully whereby it re-ascribes the cause of the hurt, finding it somewhere else, and in doing so distances itself from it. ‘Our strategy,’ the soldier says speaking to the media, ‘is to shoot at legs so as to disperse the protesters. The trouble is kids there are short of height, so our bullets and tear-gas shells hit them on their heads.’ In this statement, the cause of hurt takes flight. It bounces away from the fingers of the paramilitary forces who press the trigger on the stone-throwing and sometimes unarmed boys. It jumps far from the official policies of an excessively militarized State that facilitate such a strong reaction to stones. And where it comes to rest, oddly enough, is on the very bodies of the protestors and to their apparent divergence from the dictated norm of how tall or short young boys should be. What happens is that the cause of hurt is first delinked and then slotted elsewhere conveniently. 

The word hurting always means two things. The body that is in pain but also the entity that causes pain. Hurting both as a state to be in – for instance, my leg is hurting – and also a verb – hurting someone else. Linguistically, to be hurting is to be at once confusingly both the agent and the victim of hurt. When it comes to the militarized assortment that is the Indian State in Kashmir it makes a life out of what could have been just a harmless duality of words. When the video of Kashmir’s Abu Gharaib was being shared on social networking and video sharing websites, various branches of the Indian State found the cause of hurt in this instance not in the actions within the video but in the very sharing of it. The very next day of the circulation of the video, a police spokesperson told the PTI that this circulation can spread ‘disaffection among the people’. ‘A formal case,’ he added, ‘is being registered against the YouTube and Facebook networks and investigation is on to locate the persons responsible for uploading this baseless and malicious clip.’ The tactic of denial here meets the more advanced tactic of shooting the messenger who carries that which you either deny or whose authenticity you place in the far future. Effectively replacing the hurt persons of the Kashmiris within the public domain, the State police offers its own wounded body of ‘law and order’, vulnerable to 'disaffection', vilifying by this account the sharing of the video as a cause by itself for spreading hostility among the Kashmiris. Sharing here is revised and spoken of as propogating, the emphasis shifts from the heinous content to the act of sharing, from the message to the medium – ‘Action shall also be taken,’ the same police spokesperson added, ‘against other organisations who tried to propagate it [the video]’. In this etiological transformation, the cause of hurt becomes the very speaking of it. In the immediate aftermath of the Abu Gharaib pictures, Donald Rumsfeld similarly identified the sharing of pictures itself as illegal, as a process that by itself causes hurt, and went on, not denying their content but certainly their representativeness, to call them un-American. ‘In the information age,’ he rued, ‘where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon’.

For the elements within the State, the hurt sentiment is a politically valuable entity or a self-legitimating device only if it comes from the right quarters. If not, then it is destabilizing and must immediately be contained. When the 2010 video started circulating, Chidambaram immediately asked for the persons in the video to speak up. He curtailed the wider implications of the video, directing himself towards even as he was obscuring its particularities. In September 2012, something similar happened. When the Home department of the J&K State government rejected the widespread testing of DNA from the mass graves identified by the State’s own Human Rights Commission as possibly containing the dead bodies of disappeared non-combatant civilians, it asked again for this category of the impossible particular. ‘We can’t go on digging all the graveyards,’ Secretary B.R. Sharma said. ‘If not pointedly specific, at least we need some clue, some direction from the relatives of the missing people where they think their disappeared kin might be buried.’ He is asking for information that is almost impossible to give. In fact this whole drive towards the particular is far from the intention of discovering it and instead defers this discovery. Which is what made the Secretary go on to say one of the most paradoxical statements I have heard in recent times: ‘There is a need for closure to all this,’ he said, and then added, ‘we also want truth to come out’. 

The Home Department reasoned out its rejection of the HRC demand for DNA testing by the now familiar reascription of the cause of hurt. From the event to its sharing. From the act of injustice to the very process of asking for justice, so much so that the latter is seen as aggravating the hurt rather than being its salve. The random collection of the DNA from the graves would be, the report said, an ‘academic exercise’ that would ‘hurt the local sentiments’ of the people. Continuing with this expedient appropriation of the vocabulary of hurt, it added that this testing would ‘attract undesired media attention, cause prolonged trauma to the people, and can also act as a trigger point/event for causing serious law and order disturbances.’ In this Home department’s etiological experiment with hurt, the body of the dead Kashmiri civilian lying in the mass graves is eclipsed in favour of the body of the law and order that becomes the primary object of State protection. Here, the claim of being wronged rests with the latter. What should be evident to us is that the vocabulary of hurt is slippery. It passes through many hands making it mandatory for us to constantly sieve out one instance from the other, the vocabulary from its user. Rather than indifference to some instances of hurt and intervention in others, like of Belloc’s onlookers who let Matilda burn, we must keep an eye out for the premise of hurt each and every time it appears. This premise, as I have argued, is never simply obvious because it is a necessarily composite thing - never originating only from the hurt body but also from the way it is brought to cognizance by others.