Tag Archives: India


From Partha Banerjee:

India govt’s ghastly Commonwealth cleanup of the poor

I’m deeply troubled. Very deeply troubled.

An inconspicuous report in British paper Independent shows how the Delhi administration in India is sweeping up hundreds of thousands of poorest of the poor — men, women and children — from the city’s streets and jailing them randomly. I heard they are doing it because of the upcoming Commonwealth Games in October when sports personalities, politicians, dignitaries and most importantly, corporate businesses will come to our once-colonized land and spend their royal time and money to celebrate another round of the so-called global fraternity. Oh yes, some of them will run, jump and play ball too.

And Indian middle class will cheer.

So, in order to make the city look clean, the streets beggar-free, and the country wear a First World image, Delhi and India governments have taken on an urgent mission, with a religious zeal, to pick up the countless, hapless, half-naked, starving Indians — men, women and children — and are indefinitely putting them in India’s dreaded jails before they’re shipped out to somewhere across the country. What will happen to these God-forsaken millions and their lives, livelihoods, social connections and dignities? I’m sure they’ll let us know when the celebrities and business houses check out after the Games. Normally, in India, middle class don’t query on social connections or education of street children.

We’ve seen such grotesque acts of violence in India many times over the past, particularly since India graduated from its mediocre non-alignment, “socialist” days to a glitzy-globalized “democracy” days. We’ve seen numerous, bloody communal riots, barbaric genocide of the poor in the name of religion and caste, and international terrorism. We’ve also seen a massive change of government with transition of power from a so-called right wing dark force to a so-called centrist liberal enlightened. The new leaders of India are not the zealots and bigots, but internationally known economists and academics, United Nations celebrities, and of course, the Gandhi Dynasty — I’m sure they have certain qualifications too.

In 2002, when a barbaric carnage took place in Gandhi’s state of Gujarat when thousands of poor Muslims were slaughtered by a bigoted chief minister and his bigoted administration, there was international uproar: the New York Times, BBC, CNN, PBS, NPR and all other big-name media organizations gave us the ignorant a thorough coverage and insider information on the ghastly violence. In 2008, when a group of Pakistan-based terrorists snuck in to the five-star Taj International in the Indian Wall Street city of Mumbai and killed hundreds of hotel residents, there was another series of media uproar; CNN provided unprecedented, round-the-clock, “ticker-tape” coverage of the terrorism. We were delighted to see the extent of responsibility corporate media displaying to unearth major events happening on the other side of the world.

I’ll make it short. This time around, however, when another major act of violence is happening in the capital of West-blessed India, I see no outrage — barring a few small news blips here and there — either by the mighty human rights groups and their liberal followers, or by the mighty media that spent so much of their precious time and money to uncover Gujarat or Mumbai. I’m sad and disappointed, but not truly surprised.

The liberal outrage — either of the international rights and justice groups or of corporate media — is selective, and media keeps manufacturing peoples’ consent for or against a social, political or economic event. If the Gujarat (or the 1992 Babri Mosque) carnage is ghastly (and they are), then the Delhi clean-up of the begging destitute is equally grotesque: in the former, poor people die immediately; in the latter, poor people die a slow but sure death because of police torture, forced displacement, starvation, hunger, poverty and depression. In case of the latter, women and children suffer the most. In both cases, the brutality leaves lifelong, negative impacts on the surviving children who’d spare no time to act back against the repressive system with their own acts of violence.

I hope ordinary people both in India and the West (and perhaps some conscientious media people) pick up on this new fascism of the India government, and force them to stop this state-sponsored violence and brutality.

Again, I’m deeply troubled — to see the inaction and lack of outrage, especially of the elite liberal that screamed their lungs off before. You can’t have a double standard to denounce hate.

Thank you for reading my quickly drafted note.

Partha Banerjee
Brooklyn, New York
March 14, 2009

sthaniya sambaad 19.3.2010 5pm

I am very pleased to announce a special screening of the feature film by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas

sthaniya sambaad‘ (‘spring in the colony‘),

(105 min. 2009, 35 mm, cinemascope, EST).

Q & A with one of the directors.

5pm friday 19th March – Goldsmiths Cinema RHB

please take a look at  www.springinthecolony.com and also the blog www.sthaniya.wordpress.com for responses to the film.

A moving, and funny, story of life in a refugee colony south of  the city of Kolkata.

All welcome.

National Instruments

On the initiative of Moinak Biswas, Film Studies Jadavpur Uni, Kolkata, and with great input from Rosalind Morris, but initially inspired by the Preservation in Globalization workshop convened by Gayatri Spivak and Jorge Otero-Pailos, an interesting redevelopment seems possible. A disused factory site adjacent the Jadavpur campus was toured by our group in early December. A documentation of the site has begun by photographers invited by the Jadavpur Media Lab has generated some great pictures, see here. The site was left pretty much intact when the factory closed in 2003 – well worth  a look.

Now (see below) there is a plan to gut the site and turn it over to the engineering faculty. The site is huge – there is room for something alongside. Hence, the following draft international petition:

For continued innovation at the National Instruments site, Jadavpur.

The redevelopment of the National Instruments site offers a rare opportunity to look forward and back at the changing dynamic of industrial production. The extant materials, documents, personal effects, and machinery (lathes, punch card clocks, work desks) provide a physical record of workplace experience now passing. Jadavpur University, with its reputation, scholarship and global reach is well placed to facilitate an innovative approach that builds upon the proud history of NI and looks forward creatively to new developments.

A simple shroud should not be passed over this accumulated wealth of objects, and labour, from the past. The factory remains might be best preserved by the University in a working space that is devoted to tracking the transformations of industrial production and workplace experience in India. That a museum and art/technology laboratory has been proposed is supported by international scholars, a large number of whom have visited the site and/or noted the initial documentary work produced by Moinak Biswas and his team. We consider this an excellent, exciting and potentially rewarding possibility for joint work and international co-ordination. Scholars would seek international funds to locate research projects on labour history, urban development, new economy (service sector, technology, privatization) and co-research in joint ventures with Jadavpur scholars and students. A truly international project to unite workers of the world might be reanimated here.

The idea is that various people will sign this and it be put to the Jadavpur heads to consider the proposal, from Media Lab and Film Studies, to do something interesting with the site. Well, I think its interesting. I used to work in a similar factory as a grubby teenager. My dad spent a very large part of his life in one – Stanley, Nunawading, Melbourne, Australia. I have a touch of the heebie-jeebie’s looking at the machines, especially the drills where I had spent long low-paid days… (the picture I have used is from a post by Madhuban Mitra and Manus Bhattacharya – with thanks)


Giving some history of National Instruments, and of the original preservation project and future plans, Moinak writes:

The factory started off in 1830 under the name ‘mathematical instrument maker’, then became ‘mathematical instruments office’, both serving mainly the ‘survey of india’ instituted by the east india company. During ww1 it got seriously involved with the defense dept., became national instruments factory; was relocated to the premises you saw in 1957, renamed ‘national instruments limited’ (NIL) as a public sector unit under the union govt. the factory mainly made optical instruments for survey, measurement, photography, etc. and was popularly known for its national 35 camera. It fell into some crisis first in the 60′s, and then into a more serious one in the 80′s, got referred to the board of industrial and financial reconstruction (BIFR). Manufacture stopped in 2003. most workers accepted the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) and left in march, 2003. 64 employees remained on campus and witnessed the ruination. In 2009, jadavpur university took over the property with the aim of building an extension campus for the engineering faculty.

the media lab of the dept of film studies at jadavpur undertook extensive photo documentation of the premises in june, 2009. we commissioned 10 young photographers and filmmakers to shoot for 4 months on the premises, covering everything possible. we have a bank of 20 thousand still images and 60 hours of video footage. a blog from the stills (http://darklythroughalens.wordpress.com/) and a couple of films have been made. more projects will follow. we have shot interviews with many ex-employees. it’s now a substantial labour and industrual landscape archive.

but there should also be preservation of a different kind. the university has started renovating parts of the buildings, and will soon remove most of the equipment and files, etc. we were thinking of proposing the creation of a space, using one big room like the canteen you saw, which will preserve their products, some of the tools, machine parts, workers’ id papers, bills, service documents, policy documents, the punch card machines, etc, and at the same time be an active space for independent art practice, including independent film screenings, installations, etc. the major problem is to persuade the university to spare that space. it would pay more serious attention to an international community of artsits and intellectuals. but we should keep in mind what can be sustained and how far, given the public funded university framework in india, and given the fact that anything doing with art has first to prove its vialbility to the engineering faculty dominated.


This is great stuff – history and potential. But there are also things to debate. University take over of the fading industrial economy has a long track record (see here, here and  here). Is it really possible to tamper with such trajectories? Besides drafting the above call at Moinak’s request, I also offered my two pice worth of cynicism earlier in the discussion [note: I was a bit ill at the time]:

Moinak, your sentence on the the creation of a space that will both preserve the NI worker’s “products, some of the tools, machine parts, workers’ id papers, … punch card machines, etc, and at the same time be an active space for independent art practice” is a great start. But I wonder if the museum/archive route is too passive, and might not claim much in terms of physical space in the building (when it all should be kept in those terms - see Mao Mollona’s excellent film on industrial steel machinery in Sheffield, where a fully functioning workshop has been maintained 1890′s era machines in working, and profitable, order). I also wonder if, importantly, the preservation argument does enough in conceptual terms within the overall regeneration/transformation of the economy and the University – a discussion I imagine that must be going on, and needs new thinking.

I am acutely aware that here “anything doing with art has first to prove its viability to the engineering faculty dominated”, and wonder if the focus of what we present might be geared towards this. That said, I am stumped for where to look for initial funds, or clearly marked ‘preservation funds’. It is not my forte. However, ongoing funding could also be geared into the conception.

An Art/Laboratory would probably have pedagogical, research and creative components.

At issue is who inhabits the space, what it provides, and outcomes now and for the future.

Thus, neither a mortuary service for fading industry, nor a hollow art scene doing a ghost dance for dead capital (tried and tested, but too often turned into mere foyer or coffee shop – eg Tate Modern), the project has far greater inter- and intra- disciplinary purchase, and potential as for very wide participation. The former workers, the Jadavpur students, local residents, the city in general, and both national and international research teams across many areas can be drawn into the nexus of this site conceived as instrumental to the transition between older and newer economic modes. Research, teaching and creativity all have a role in transition.

A range of projects, both national and international – but many funded internationally – could locate in dedicated space within the project:

Possible internationally funded Research Projects for Instrument Lab

- changing infrastructure of economies, history and globalization, technology and colonialism, warfare and commerce, education and training history (see journal of the Confernce of Socialist Economists)

- class composition and worker’s inquiry, labour history, transition economies and the transformation of work, co-research with workers of older and newer economic production (this is a project I would like to pursue between Goldsmiths, Queen Mary Business School and Jadavpur – funded by Economic and Social Research Council UK perhaps, the Co-Research would involve workers paid as researchers in both discontinued production such as National Instruments, as well as in new industries in Kolkata such as creative economy, service sector, media and telecoms. They would be researching, documenting and theorizing their own conditions of work – aim initially at a three year project @ £500k for 4 paid researchers on site, plus money for collaborative work).

- precision capitalism, mathematical arts of production, skill, craft and body/machine knowledge: instrument hand and brain, cyborg labs then and now (Fuller/Harwood/MUTE or RAQS?).

- obsolescence and regenerative second life, industrial remains and urban renewal, science and fiction, creative revival as life force in cities (see P.Hall and M.Castells: Technopoles of the World).

- photographic imaging and war/industry convergence (as digital is to analog; globalization is [not] to industry)

- teaching exchange, especially in cultural studies of work, education, training, urban preservation and curating (possible Network Grants at £70k each)

These projects in various ways – there would be many others possible – would be conceived to locate researchers at Jadavpur, employed locally and internationally, and would work with local constituents and stakeholders (workers, researchers, students, local residents, support staff). Each would entail a pedagogical exchange function, as well as a display (installations, museum, art) aspect. The point is to keep this alive to change, the transformation of work, of class composition, or urban environs, and of the university itself (as universities move to project based work, and older models of disciplinary containment are supplemented).

Ahhh, now I have written all this down I think maybe its not strong enough yet to stave off the impending disposal of most of the workplace artefacts, beautiful machines (valuable machines) and other remains, but those remains are the resource and raw material of something potentially great in the future. Our labour can reanimate them – the sweat of our friends to whom we owe a debt (not just of mourning).

Sorry for the Derridisms – the flu drugs again kick in…

Journalism of a type.

IMG_2774Some may think the quality of – ehem – journalism about the Maoist struggles in India is somewhat lacking in style. Others may think that this over-worked topic really pushed a writer to find a unique angle, a way in to the jungle that is the Naxalite narrative tradition (of demonization and ‘counter). But I warn over hasty readers that a subtle use of dialectics (here to be distinguished from literary ping pong) is often hard to discern. OK OK, in this one its really just ping pong, and certainly not of a type sourced in Yenan. How could so many neat reversals (contradictions to be handled?) be crammed into the one piece? And I am only quoting the first few paragraphs, see the whole thing here for the amazing unfolding truths.

This excerpt is from Dawn.com – ( I have no details as to who they are – they say they are my ‘window on news analysis and features on Pakistan, South Asia and the world’ – fab.).

Want to hate Maoists? Start calling them Taliban.

Jawed Naqvi 
Monday, 12 Oct, 200

IN the mosquito-infested inaccessible forests of Chhattisgarh, Maoist guerrillas often carry an insect repellent cream called Odomos. God help you if the security forces hunting the guerrillas — now for the first time with the help of helicopter-borne commandos — ever catch you with a tube.

Other than that there is little to distinguish a Maoist from an ordinary tribal or a Dalit, the two major communities that form the bulwark of their revolt straddling 20 Indian states.

Very little is made known about the Maoists except that they are a bloody-minded lot. The gap in information about their worldview can be partly ascribed to their cultivated aloofness from, and suspicion of, the mainstream Indian media. Otherwise too it has become a risky proposition for journalists to venture to assess them objectively.

The rest of the piece goes on to survey such wildly varied themes as poverty, water, kidnappings, the views of the PM, and of [confused] chief ministers, the BJP, the Business Standard, the Taliban, beheadings, including that of the Norwegian tourist in Kashmir more than ten years ago, Roman crucifixion and the marital peccadilloes of Henry VIII. It really does deserve to be read as abstracted (dialectic?) poetics. And in the last paragraph, the killer punch that assures this journalist his Pulitzer is the phrase: ‘Shoring up the chorus of unrelated idioms are the security forces…’ As I said, read the rest here.

OR, you can find better writing on Naxalites here and maybe here.

Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin

interasiaI’ve not posted all that much of other people’s stuff lately, but I have been catching up on reading it. This short review of Rustom Bharucha’s Another Asia, by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, neatly conveys what is great about Rustom’s book. The review is from Inter-Asian Cultural Studies (here). Rustom was our guest at Theatre Border (here):

Continental contemporaries: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin

Shuddhabrata Sengupta: Some lives, by virtue of the broad expanses that they span, come to acquire the breadth and proportions of continents. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner, and Okakura Tenshin, Japanese aesthete, curator and cultural intermediary between ‘East’ and ‘West’; two personalities who straddled the early twentieth century with the peripatetic itineraries of their quests, and with the restless horizons of their very different but complementary accomplishments, come close to embodying intellectual and imaginative sweeps of continental dimensions. Their biographies are also generous geographies.

Rustom Bharucha’s magisterial mapping of the worlds invoked by the Tagore-Okakura encounter - Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin (2007) – delivers what it promises – a displacement of our common-sense apprehension of political and personal geography, of arbitrary affiliation, even of how we conceive of the intimate maps of long distance intimacy, through a diligent and close reading of the public and hidden transcripts of the interactions between two men, who happened to be friends and contemporaries, and yet whose convictions pointed them eventually in very different directions. Bharucha’s achievement lies in the care with which he unravels the differences (even as he is mindful of the resonances) in terms of the way in which Tagore and Okakura imagined and lived the intersections between space and culture, life and thought, politics and aesthetics.

On Rajagopal

gastewayArvind Rajagopal 2009 ‘Violence, Publicity, and Sovereignty: Lawlessness in Mumbai’ Social Identities 15(3):411-416

The always interesting Arvind Rajagopal starts his discussion of the terror attacks of Mumbai by evoking the ‘lawless violence’ of the East India Company of old, suggesting that ‘once more we are at a time’ when the territorial incursions of rampant ‘non-state actors’ are denounced by politicians, just as the activities of the East India Company provoked calls for the rule of law in the British parliament, and the company was relieved of its rule, subsequently ceded formally to the Empire.

Rajagopal links the piracy of the East India Company to that of contemporary terror discourse: ‘On 26 November 2008, terrorists arrived by sea and entered near the Gateway [of India], making an entrance not unlike the pirates of yesteryear’ (Rajagopal 2009:411). The trouble with this formulation is that however much the Mumbai attackers can be traced to Karachi, they are not quite the calibre of state sanctioned privateers such as, Drake, Raleigh or the officials of the EIC, nor is Pakistan the likely Colonial power about to impose rule of law upon the subcontinent as part of some global sunset-avoidance regime. Yes, the State of today ‘mimics the behaviour of private parties, justifying violence as revenge and practicing torture as the just deserts of terrorists’ (Rajagopal 2009: 411-412), but I am not sure the Mumbai scenario exactly fits the EIC analogy. Later in the article Rajagopal chides exactly those who would suggest the source of Hindu-Muslim violence joins up all too neatly with some civilizational clash argument, with Hindu’s ‘improbably’ on the side of Christianity (Rajagopal 2009:415). Without agreeing for one moment that the clash of civilizations argument is coherent, to suggest that Hindu-Muslim violence is somehow projected onto this scenario strangely feels like a ritual evocation of the story of Meerut and the rumours that provoked the ‘Mutiny’ – which remains unmentioned by Rajagopal, but is implied, and is of course one of the main catalysts for the revocation of the EIC charter in the late 1850s (see discussion in Hutnyk 2004). I think, however, the piracy of the terrorists and that of the EIC is of a different order, vis a vis justifications of State power.

What I am suggesting is that a framing of the Mumbai attacks in terms of a dated moment of crisis of sovereignty belonging to the 1850s (itself deftly discussed by Marx) is an old thinking that does not adequately characterize the Imperial conjuncture of today. Yes, there are parallels, but the lawlessness of the State is the para-site of Empire – the model is not the EIC and its private army, but the Empire proper, from Viceroys through to Sepoys: a State actor that sanctions its own lawlessness as law. Rajagopal goes back too far, influenced perhaps by the thinking of Hardt and Negri, who also made the EIC a point of comparison for the globalism of today. Why though, not think of Empire at its height? The colonial today is full-blown, the Viceroy strides the earth (and her name is Hillary ). Significantly more interesting is Rajagopal’s appreciation of the changed media circumstances in which this scenario is played out. Here, the recent history (of media) is evoked (though again with reference to rumours that might just be heard to hark back to that Meerut story) and helps us comprehend the present media scene. The points presented in terms of media and its effects are more substantially grounded in transnational commercial flows, and though this is also well-worked ground, it is worth quoting in detail:

‘The attacks of November 2008 were the first terror attacks in India to occur under the full glare of media spotlights, and, after many years of state-controlled media, in an era in which private broadcasters dominate the airwaves. Dozens of 24-hour news channels vie for the Indian audience, many of them subsidiaries of transnational media corporations … In the past, when such violence occurred, the first response by the state controlled media would be a news blackout, followed by terse and occasional news bulletins aimed at the political management of the situation: public safety took second place to the preservation of the ruling party. Citizens had to rely on rumour for information, and of course the source was never certain. Although there was often alarm and panic, any citizen responses were necessarily more diffuse’ (Rajagopal 2009:413)

I do find it difficult to concede that the citizen response to partition in 1947, language riots in the 1950s, Naxalbari and its aftermaths in the 1960s and 1970s, anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984, Babri Masjid in 1992, and so on, were merely ‘diffuse’ [my italics], but the suggestion that a new live news, transnational media, audience competition dominates the public sphere certainly deserves consideration in terms of sovereignty and state control of the instruments of communication. Rajagopal is right to say ‘the media take on increasingly state-like characteristics’ (Rajagopal 20009:414) – what needs to be further examined is how the imbrications of state power and terror proceed apace. What is hinted at in Rajagopal’s title, but not developed, is that sovereignty and violence are intertwined here: of course the work of Georgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, and most of all that of Walter Benjamin will be crucial, and more careful readers will need to be deployed. It is well and good that Rajagopal indicates the terrain upon which explanations, and useful analogies, may be sought, but what is to be avoided is any suggestion that this new ‘lawless’ moment can be wholly understood as a rerun of the piracy of the EIC. If this analogy is to work at all,, the comparison should be exactly with the consequences of the imposition of formal colonial rule, the removal of the powers of the Company in favour of an organised Governmental force, and thereby the systemic crushing of the anti-colonial threat of the ‘Mutiny’ and its consequences (including its diffuse ‘rumours’ of a possible independence – see Mahasweta Devi’s amazing book The Rani of Jhansi). News media of the like of NDTV x 24 are not much more than the propaganda wing of the State machine, now diversified into business in convoluted but effective ways. And of course there was a terror czar trotted out to be the Giuliani of Mumbai (chief of police interviewed…), but he was not charismatic enough to then run for mayor – not every history repeats as farce. Rajogopal has presented some interesting comparative moves, but maybe not necessarily exactly the ones that are most apposite.

Thanks as ever to Virinder Kalra for discussion that provoked some of the ideas here.

Shimla – July 14-15 2009

tv8An abstract for a talk at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, ‘Television in India’ conference -  July 14-15 2009 – Shimla

News Media or Politics Show: Terror Reporting and the Box.

If a regional encounter with the apparatus of television is to be approached critically, it may be the case that an exclusive use of ‘media theory’ is not always the first or best stop. Theories of the televisual and specific mutations of genre formats in a global and postcolonial ‘milieu’ – in this case News and Crisis/Terror reporting – can of course be problematized in the Indian context. A postcolonial/globalisation model may suggest a review of the theoretical frameworks that inform media theory in general, especially in the context of national(ist) and international(ist) pressures. Two examples of recent ‘Terror incidents’ and the ways they have been reported, discussed and presented through television will be considered: the trial of Afzal Guru, and the Mumbai Attacks. Whilst tragic in multiple ways, these events are also made spectacular, emotive and divisive, according to interpretation. Television news has variously engaged in information war and controversy before our eyes, on our screens.

John Hutnyk

Bengali Cinema and class

nagarikI was asked for recommendations of films on Class and Caste by Dipa for her course in LA.  Just a few very quick suggestions of the top of my head. I’ve no idea if these are readily available in Hollywood, but I’d expect they should be:

Bengali Films on class [and caste] would start with almost anything by Mrinal Sen (we screened a bunch of these at Goldsmiths last year):

Sen’s film “Kharij” is great for its critique of middle class life. He made this after his Calcutta revolution trilogy. Though I guess that’s more class politics than caste, of course it can also be seen that the boy is of lower caste as well. Its a pretty amazing film.

Or you might look at the films of Ritwik Ghatak, starting with Nagarik 1952, an early Marxist statement dealing with partition – predates Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” by a few years, but not released till after Ritwik died of alcohol related illness.

Then – though not a Bengali film – there is that film about Ambedkar, more contemporary, glossy, but I recall thinking it pretty good. Read Gail Omvedt alongside the film.

Several films have been made of Mahasweta Devi novels to do with tribals and dalits. “Mother of 1084” I think is one that deserves attention. Obviously its Devi and Spivak who you’d read alongside this. My take here.

Ashis nandy – troublemaker (yay)

This just in from Meeta:

Date: Wed, 2 Jul 2008 13:43:34 -0700
Subject: [Awaazlist] Enraged Modi seeks arrest of renowned social scientist Ashis Nandy

Gujarat government intolerant, says Supreme Court
Tuesday 1st July, 2008 (IANS)

The Supreme Court Tuesday rebuked the Gujarat government for being ‘intolerant’ and stalled its bid to arrest political commentator Ashis Nandy.

A vacation bench of Justice Altmas Kabir and Justice G.S. Singhvi castigated the state government while hearing a lawsuit by Nandy, challenging his impending arrest by the Ahmedabad police on charges of inciting communal hatred by writing an article criticising Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

‘If a journalist can’t write what he wants to, who will write?,’ asked the bench, expressing surprise over the state government’s action of registering a criminal case against Nandy in May for writing an article published in the Times of India in January.

The bench asked Nandy’s age and when told that he was 71 year old, it said: ‘Then what investigation? You are prosecuting him for what? For writing an article? You cannot be so intolerant.’

‘The people coming from the state of Mahatma Gandhi are behaving like this,’ the bench rued.

Castigating the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for prosecuting a journalist, whom it described as a ‘soft target’, the bench asked: ‘Have you ever caught a politician in this manner?’

The bench Monday asked the state government if it was ready to pledge before it that it would not arrest Nandy for writing the column. Wahi promised the bench she would apprise it of the government’s mind over the issue after taking instruction from it.

On Tuesday, she, however, sought to wriggle out of the situation by saying that the case registered against Nandy was different from those registered against some other scribes of the newspaper.

The bench, however, said that it does not want to keep Nandy’s petition pending and directed the state government not to arrest Nandy. The bench also annulled summons issued to Nandy by a police station in Ahmedabad directing him to appear there on July 8.

Nandy, a commentator and social scientist of international renown, had held Gujarat’s middle class responsible for the BJP’s electoral victory in December polls.

Patrick Swayze Dance with Death

There will be no “Dirty Dancing 3″ it seems. Sad, but at least we can luxuriate in the recollections of knowing that “DD2″ (2004 – where Patch was a dance instructor) will have been the last outing for the Rambo of the ballroom, and the flame will never be dimmed. I am dismayed that he has cancer, but also not surprised since his delicate health has always been an issue. There was a time, soon after his work in Kolkata on the film “City of Joy”, that we were very concerned. Roland Joffe, director, had had to build a secure fresh water pool for the monsoon scene of that film since to have his star swim in regular Kolkata water would have been too big a risk. After the shoot we got some souvenirs too (a jar full, see below) – we were fans not only of “DD”, but also his excellent, Keanu-mocking role in “Point Break”. But it was the “City of Joy” stuff that was a worry, Swayze said at the Melbourne premier that while he could normally command a seven million dollar fee for a film, he so wanted to do this one “for the people of Calcutta” that he accepted just one million dollars. Here are some excerpts from my “Rumour” chapter on the film [with pictures added for my amusement] detailing the story of the fake slum, the fake promo shots, fake protests and fake stool – a farce all round in a city that deserves more than a dirty two-step coin trick:

Cinematic Calcutta

This chapter considers cinematic Calcuttas … The Joffe film, “City of Joy” is the primary focus because this film was made in co-operation with volunteers from the Preger clinic living in Modern Lodge. It presents highly-worked, advanced media technology, scripted and choreographed version of the rumour of Calcutta, so that the experience of travellers and visitors as portrayed in the film version … Released in 1992, “City of Joy”, directed by Joffe and starring Swayze alongside Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, offers an opportunity to evaluate the role of the movie camera in the presentation of India, and Calcutta (to the world beyond its shores). The distribution circuits of the film are all the more relevant here since City of Joy takes as its subject a ‘volunteer’ visitor who works in a street clinic very similar to that in which the travellers I met worked. Indeed, ‘the same’.

The plot of “City of Joy” is simple. The film begins with the death of an anonymous patient on an operating table in a modern American hospital. The surgeon in charge of the operation suffers anguish and despair over his failure. Cut to India.
Hasari (Om Puri) and family travel to Calcutta by bullock and cart, bus then train – the acceleration of this travel trajectory is not accidental. With warnings from a Grandmother to “stay away from the cinema”, they arrive to the crowded Howrah station amidst a Communist rally (which is the only scene which indicates any formal political presence in the city at all). They spend a first night camped by the Hooghly river and are then deceived into renting someone’s apartment by the charlatan Mr Ganguly. After Ganguly disappears, and Hasari and family begin to settle in, they are suddenly chased from the apartment, which was not for rent, and was not Mr Ganguly’s in the first place. Having lost all their savings, they mark out a space of pavement.

Dr Max (Patrick Swayze) arrives at Sudder Street’s Fairlawn Hotel (no bar fridge, offers of a “lady”) and takes a shower, musing over his absent passport, which he has left at an ashram, and his earnest quest to find enlightenment/escape from his failed life in America as a surgeon. In the first of what are many uncommon occurrences for this ‘typical’ American tourist, the porter from the Fairlawn brings Poomina, (Suneeta Sengupta) an allegedly 20 year old “lady”, with whom Max has “some problem” (a euphemism for sex?), but resolves this by going out drinking. As must happen with all Americans stranded in a ‘foreign’ city, Max ends up in a sleazy nightclub, the drinking bout leads to a bar fight, as goondas bash him – a very unusual event to befall a tourist in even the most seedy of Calcutta’s bars, more likely in New York – and he is robbed of all belongings. Hasari, from his pavement space nearby, intervenes and brings the near unconscious Max, with Poomina’s assistance, to Joan’s ‘City of Joy’ street clinic. Joan (Pauline Collins) patches up his wounds, shows him around the clinic, its small dispensary and school, and pays his way back to his comfortable hotel.

Max “doesn’t like sick people” and resists Joan’s obvious plans to recruit him as doctor for the clinic. Hasari learns to pull a rickshaw, bringing Max back to the hotel in a mad zig-zag through proverbially crowded streets. The unlikely entrance of such a rickshaw into the grounds of the hotel is not the least of the inaccuracies (or rather, artistic licence) of the film – the street protocols and hierarchy of business and propriety which operate even in Calcutta’s relatively small tourist trade are glossed over in this realist portrayal.

Rickshaw work is controlled by the family of Ghatak, whose son Ashoka (Art Malik) – the one whose gang beat up on Max – demands that Hasari ‘neigh’ like a horse if he wants to pull a rickshaw. The more pragmatic father examines Hasari’s chest (for signs of tuberculosis) and demands “loyalty”, and Hasari becomes a rickshaw wallah. While in Pilkana, the real City of Joy, hand-pulled rickshaw’s have been long replaced by bicyclist-driven ones, artistic licence again erases the contemporary conditions of Calcutta and no recognition is made of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation campaign to end the use of hand-pulled rickshaws. Although the hand-pulled rickshaw is still prevalent in the inner city area, this fictive shifting of them to the City of Joy is another calculated inaccuracy: such omissions of urban planning efforts in Calcutta are significant devices in presenting the city as the exemplar of massively abstracted ‘grinding poverty’. Upon establishing himself as a rickshaw wallah, Hasari and family move into a room in the City of Joy. Hasari plans to save for his daughter’s dowry (no criticism of this practice acknowledged, despite signs of a school, and thus by implication the usual campaigns to prevent the illegal practice of dowry and the many tragedies to which it leads through extortionate demands).

The notion that Ashoka and the Ghatak family organization are somehow, consciously or unconsciously placed in the metaphoric location of the Left Front Government and its officials in Joffe’s version of Calcutta may occur to some. As the slippage from specific characterizations to generalized ‘how things are in Calcutta’, and with the conspicuous absence of the communist parties in most of the film, it seems clear that Ghatak, as embodiment of all evil and corruption, will be associated with formal authority in the city. The message is that the only authority in Calcutta is corrupt. This crypto-anti-communist lesson from Joffe will be acknowledged and internalized to varying degrees of conscious recognition – and moreso if audiences are aware of any of the wranglings Joffe had with the Government of West Bengal, Bengali intellectuals and the Calcutta press over the propriety of making this film. While it is not possible to show that the characterizations of the Ghatak family must be seen as a Joffe slag against the CPI(M) through ‘metonymic’ substitution, this does raise questions of the motivations of those involved in this sort of film-making, and that perhaps the film is about Joffe’s, and Swayze’s, frustrations more than much else. The explorations of Swayze’s tortured self, the search for enlightenment and meaning, the works of ‘charity’, in a psychoanalysis by substitution, can be read as Joffe’s own experience. Despite criticism from almost every quarter in Calcutta – from the Government who banned his film to other film-makers, including Satyajit Ray who said he couldn’t film on the streets of the city – Joffe belligerently and relentlessly pursued his project. There were great difficulties encountered in scenes filmed in the streets, although most of the film was shot in a specially built million dollar set in suburban Calcutta. Swayze recounted the excitement of filming with a certain tension in a promotional interview: “we were forced to just set up the camera and shoot before anyone noticed what we were up to”. (Less generous critics on the roof of the Modern Lodge called this the clandestine realismo approach to film-making).
Max, meanwhile, is trying to buy a hamburger in a streetside “no beef” cafe. He spots Ashoka, gives chase, but is detained by the police. Rescued a second time by Joan, he comments upon her work in the street clinic: “are you just nuts, or are you doing penance here?” Joan replies with the first of many pro-charity soliloquys that would not seem all that out of place at a Modern Lodge roof-top meeting: “I came on a whim in the first place, but then I stayed. In the beginning it was really frustrating trying to convince them not to be so bloody passive, and then I realised I was fighting a thousand years of passive acceptance”. The theme of passivity is the recurrent explanation of people’s predicament throughout the film.

Max: “Maybe you should stop doing this”. Joan: “Maybe I should … but I’m not very good at loving just one person, it seems to work out better if I spread it around a little bit”. After this exchange Max reaffirms his faith in the Dallas Cowboys, American cinema and Mickey Mouse. Joan’s “simple-minded, but tidy” three part explanation of the ways of the world – there are runaways, observers, and the committed – does not seem to impress as Hasari invites him to share a meagre dinner. After a planting ceremony of seeds in a pot on behalf of his daughter’s dowry, the farmer who must always watch something grow, asserts the ‘simple’ joys of life. But very soon after, this tranquil scene is disrupted by an emergency which only Max can deal with, and although there is no morphine, diazepam … local anaesthetic, he is able to assist in the delivery of a breach birth – an awesome scene in which the doctor asserts the full authority of the medical tradition contra indigenous superstition and fear. Amidst all this, Hasari’s wife Kamla (Shabana Azmi) assists the doctor on the strength of her experience as a mother of three, and earns a position as his nurse when – after the loss of his airticket home, and a little soul searching: “I don’t even feel good about what we did down there today, bringing another little mouth to feed into this cesspool” – he ‘volunteers’ to help in the clinic on a continuing basis. Max: “You call this a clinic!” Joan: “We’ve got no brain scanner either Max, but we’re doing the best we can” (these lines, and a scene involving the sale of donated milk, were offered to Joffe, I suspect, from the chief humourist at the Preger Middleton Row clinic).

In the meantime Poomina has been ordered to attend school under Max’s directive. Max and Joan visit Ghatak (Shyamanand Jalan), who offers Max a lesson in goonda philosophy: “I have learnt not to trust those who say they do things for the benefit of others”, which Max violently rejects. This is an interesting refusal which encodes much of Joffe’s message; unlike the passive and yoked people of the City of Joy, Max will not bow down before the power of the oppressor Ghatak. He calls upon the people of the City of Joy to rise up against the Ghatak family: “You should get pissed at the people who are really using you”. This is as admirable a message as it is naive. Even the most cursory history lesson about Bengal would have taught Joffe that any suggestion that Calcuttans need American coaching in order to organize a political mobilisation is wholly absurd. Passivity here works as Western arrogance and denial displaced by self-importance. Near the beginning of the film Grandmother had warned Hasari’s sons Shambu and Manooj to “stay away from the cinema”, but Max, a film-buff’s fanatic, had taken them to see an action-hero epic. Max is the agent of (cinematic) change, although a mature assessment of the effects of cinema upon him in his youth, where his adulterous father packed him off to the movies while pursuing his affairs, might lead to other evaluations of the impact of paternal directives. While Joffe does not take up the metaphor of movies and paternalism which could be read into this scene, the self-referentiality of Joffe’s cinema jokes may have unforeseen dysfunctions which should not be lost on critical audiences who are likely to note that the real “users” in this film are the Americans, Swayze and Joffe, and the imperialist system which makes possible this sort of cinematic characterization of Calcutta by wealthy celluloid “bosses”. Fatherly protection and paternalistic charity are the guiding themes. The rest of the film follows the script of classics like The Wild Bunch and The Seven Samurai, as Max leads the people of the City of Joy to organise and, subsequently, Hasari inspires the rickshaw wallahs to rebel against the oppression of the Ghatak ‘family’. There are several almost predictable setbacks: Hasari contracts tuberculosis, a common complaint among rickshaw wallahs; he loses his rickshaw to Ashoka and he is forced to sell his blood (a sensational aspect of poverty included in the story and around which the author of the book “City of Joy”, Dominique Lapierre, was severely criticised); an attack is organised by Ashoka and his goondas upon the leprosy clinic; and there is a near-death action-camera experience for Max during the monsoon flood (the 250,000 gallons of water for the flood was specially pumped into the watertight set Joffe had built to enable monsoon filming without regular ‘polluted’ monsoon water – the entire project overseen by Star Wars trilogy special effects wizard Nick Allder).

There is one terrible scene where Ashoka traps Poomina and uses a razor to cut her cheeks to “accentuate that beautiful smile”, although Max’s surgical skill is sufficient to restore her beauty. Moving from active woman to silent ‘child’, Poomina’s character develops in a way that underscores certain gendered and ethnocentric assumptions about Indian women. From an assertive, but fallen woman who initiates all interaction between herself and Max, and brings him to the City of Joy clinic, her increasing passivity contrasts to her initial resourcefulness as she is ordered off to school, is attacked with the razor by Ashok, is carried to safety by Max who sews her slit mouth shut – making her unable to speak in the entire second half of the film. After functioning as the catalyst for Max’s arrival in the City of Joy, as well as providing a hint of exotic and erotic intrigue, Poomina is silenced almost as completely as Hasari’s daughter, who, without a word, and possibly in Poomina’s place, is married at the end of the film with the dowry that Hasari has almost killed himself to earn.

After this, the film’s denouement is a scene reminiscent of the manger sequence in Jerusalem in late December two thousand years ago. Amidst a grey Calcutta, just one shining light beacons for all Christian souls – the clinic of the City of Joy – as the camera pulls back to a full panorama and the credits roll.


There is much in “City of Joy” that people could find offensive. The simplicity of the emotive codes in which poverty and the conditions of Calcutta are explained away as problems of passivity, and localized exploitation, avoids any analysis of the global economic factors which depress such sectors in Calcutta. Max, even though the audience recognizes that he is from the wealthy ‘West’, is still presented as the man with the answers, despite the self-help rhetoric of the clinic. It is never acknowledged that Max’s own patronizing attitudes and ‘answers’ are founded upon the full might of neocolonial exploitation of Calcutta by international capitalism. Nor does the representation of women in the film, as smiling, passive, beautiful and increasingly silent beings, provide any degree of analytic sophistication. Such formulaic representations of bodies cannot achieve more. The absence of those who in other (local) narratives of the city are seen to be doing things in Calcutta, be it the Corporation, or the militant communists and CPI(M), simply affirms the film’s misrepresentations of Calcuttans as passive (apolitically joyous), and Americans as those-who-have-answers. This is not Calcutta, and although I’m not sure what is, or how its diversity could be represented (but see the films of Mrinal Sen), it is possible to argue that despite being ‘about’ Westerners in Calcutta, Joffe’s film does not at any stage address an explanation of the problems of Calcutta in terms of international relations, nor does it consider the dimensions of local conditions – positive and negative – in the context of Calcutta’s political history, or provide more than a gloss over the factors of class and caste which should take at least some place in any narrative. That he prefers instead to lay all blame on a local petty bully boy, in an emotional and sentimental heart-throb wild west adventure in which Patrick Swayze saves the day – hi ho Silver – is nothing short of amazing.

Can the camera, in the hands of a Western visitor, see otherwise? If “images of Calcutta are restless and constantly shifting in meaning” as Joffe says (Filmnotes 1992) is it possible to disrupt the code that he has played out here? There are other films of Calcutta, but I do not think the ‘difference’ that these films display is a difference that enters or effects the codifications that determine Joffe’s images. The reasons for this are prejudices and ethnocentrisms that are not specific to the camera, but are neither disrupted nor displaced by it either. Imperialist business-as-usual seems to be the order of the day – the camera is a fold in perception, and yet nothing much has changed. Similarly, Joffe can present himself as a more sensitive film-maker, alert to many of the pitfalls and assumptions of cultural difference, able to recognise at least a degree of the indeterminancies of meaning in which he is involved – “Calcutta taught me to take nothing at face value” (Joffe, Filmnotes 1992), and yet still make a very conventional film which reiterates Kipling-like arrogances.

There are too many of these bad news stories in a city which gets a bad press. Its inscription as the exemplary site of photogenic poverty and overcrowding is continually reinforced, the analysis and action which might address Calcutta’s problems is not forthcoming, and despite all this Joffe persisted in forcing his production onto our screens. In Calcutta the filming was bizarre; riots outside, and invasions of, the set, hijacking of the cast’s food truck, union bans, huge crowds come to see the Indian film stars, stone throwing, police lathi charges (bamboo baton), delays of all kinds, the shooting of the film attracted much – perhaps too much – attention. There were, it seems, also some problems with Patrick Swayze’s bowels: in April 1991, Modern Lodge volunteer workers were able to auction off a stool sample bottle with the star’s name upon it found among junk donated by the departing film crew. If we were interested in authenticity we might expect to find Dr. Max in “City of Joy” spending most of his time in the bathroom attending to his diarrhoea. This, of course, would be unseemly in a popular film, however much it would resonate with the experience of visitors and their ongoing shit-talk. The viscous limit of “City of Joy” is reached by blood, childbirth and a fairly sanitized focus upon the stumps of leprosy. With a fabricated slum, with imitation monsoons from pumped bore water, hand-pulled rickshaws where there are bicycles, joy in destitution, and what the film crew described as ‘chaos all around’, it is still a wonder that the film appeared at all (a tribute to Joffe’s cash reserves). During the period of filming there were numerous reviews, pro and con, and promotional articles in the Calcutta press reporting the sensations of riots and intrigues on the set. A whole gossip and rumour system in itself. Subsequently the whole affair has entered more literary writings as a background event in other stories about Calcutta. For example a character in Sunetra Gupta’s novel “The Glassblower’s Breath” announces his successful tender for the contract to build Joffe’s set: “So he would be building a slum, a slum to slum all slums in this city of slum, for no slum had proved slum enough for the City of Joy … Do you feel no shame?” (Gupta 1993:233).

Wholesome purchase and transportation of slum dwellers’ houses went into the construction of the ‘City of Joy’ set. One volunteer noted that the bustee dwellers must have thought Joffe was mad; ‘he comes in, sees the broken down roof of hessian and the tin sheets and says, “I love it, I’ll have it” and peels off three or four hundred rupees to give to the owner. Then his henchmen get to work, remove the old wrecked roof as carefully as possible and replace it with a strong solid new roof!’ (Kath). Yes, it is crazy. The old roof is fitted into Hollywood’s authentic Calcutta.

As a coda to this, the scene in “City of Joy” where Max gives a rupee to the begging children can stand as an emblem for all the themes of third world tourism and charity. Max plays this out as a sleight of hand in a way that recalls Derrida’s presentation of Baudelaire’s counterfeit coin tale. Unlike Lévi-Strauss who dismisses the begging child’s call for one anna as ‘pathetic’, Max engages with the children, and amuses them with coin tricks. Here we can read a routine of savage curiosity over colonial magic often played out to remind Western audiences of their technological advantages. Max is soon overwhelmed by the numbers of children his offer of coins attract and he is forced to flee – the very same scene appears in John Byrum’s 1984 film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, where Bill Murray arrives on the steps of the Ganges in Varanasi4. What does the coin trick signify here? Is it that the Western visitor has the power to give and yet also to fake the gift, and abandon the effort when the demand gets too much?

The coin, as symbol of money, is not, here, the universal marker of value that it is in the money form for Marx. The burden of money in Marx is to be both a commodity exchangeable for itself as well as for all other commodities. Max’s coin cannot be exchanged. The coin, however, is a marker of an exchange in another way – the coin given to a beggar is a marker of power. This is a transaction which shares its structure with the appropriation of photography or film, an abstract directional exchange. Max exchanges his coin for the return that comes to all who give … The coin Max gives has its value “stripped away” (Marx 1858/1973:147) and it comes to stand for a social relation, so that the trick of this scene is that the gift of a coin, as any similar scene of ‘poverty’ is reinvested through the media circuits and wider economy of received images of India. This scene travels. In another context Spivak provides an analysis of this counterfeit and quotes Marx as saying: “in the friction with all kinds of hands, pouches, pockets, purses … the coin rubs off” (Marx in Spivak 1985:81), recalling that Nietzsche too mentions coins which have lost their face through rubbing. This occurs in his famous comment that truths are only metaphors, of which we have forgotten their illusory nature – “coins no longer of account as coins” (in Spivak intro to Derrida 1967/1976:xxii). Another formulation; in Capital, Marx says, “During their currency coins wear away” (Marx 1867/1967:125). “Im Umlauf verschleissen namlich die goldmunzen, die eine mehr, die andere weniger” (Das Kapital p.139).

From: The Rumour of Calutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation. Zed 1996.

The pictures I have included here also tell a story – here they are in order:Patrick and Suneeta; advert for City of Joy with Howrah bridge in background (remember this pose); Howrah Bridge itself; original scene for the ad pic with Art Malik as goonda-henchman – with no Howrah Bridge; and finally, a two-step trick just to show my love for PS is boundless – our two families; made into one, since we are all having the time of our lives…

and I never felt like this before

Yes I swear it’s the truth

And I owe it all to you”

Stairway to Heaven

The resurrection of Led Zeppelin at their 02 Arena event evoked long suppressed memories that lurch from the awful to the wonderful. In the awful column: bad versions of ‘stairway’ being hacked out by spotty youths in guitar shops (and now, I am appalled to report, regurgitated by buskers on the London tube where everyone is well sick of Crimbo carols – do these people know any good songs? we need a better soundtrack for the struggle home from bargain shopping/return of dodgy gifts).

And in the wonderful column, Led Zep’s return reminds me of this picture of a spiral staircase that once stood on the corner of Stuart Lane and Sudder Street in Kolkata (pic is from a slide, now covered in dust – click to enlarge). This as not, I hasten to add, a functioning spiral, nor have I gone all otherworldly heaven-oriented god-botherinly religious for the silly season – though the disorderly mental state of some denizens of the lodge in those days (circa 1988) might have meant several attempts to climb this thing were made. There was quite a bit of paranoid anxiety that perhaps suggested to some that escaping the mortal coil was a viable flight path (‘I’m a jumbo jet, I’m a jumbo jet’).

As everyone will no doubt gather from their papers this morning, South Asia in the news a lot today – Bhutto family rivaling the Gandhis for martydoms; cricket (India needs 499 runs to save the series); anti-tourist campaign in Goa – awful, wonderful and comic this time.

Awful: Benazir was memorably described as ‘the virgin iron pants’ by [Shlomo] Rushdie, which is now disturbingly ironic given Rushdie is firmly in the maw of the US ideological project, but in a lesser way than Bhutto, even as she was ever a pawn in the superpower democracy-terror game. Rushdie cowered down and changed sides, from left-ish wag to playboy gimp. She, however, only ducked occasionally, and seemed far more concerned with her power moves. Super-pawn might be a better description, since she saw her way to power paved with compromises born of Washington. Certainly we can be skeptical of her democratic record (awful and awful), elected to rule at Oxford Union and Pakistan (twice). Surely when we think of the democracy drive in Pakistan or elsewhere, supported generously by both the US and UK[!], we should wonder why personages, such as the General or the Iron Pantaloon, are so keen to play this figurehead role. Head of the People’s Party or General-not-in-uniform Musharraf, neither seemed likely to be able to do much more than the bidding of imperial masters.

No surprise that I’d say this is not democracy in any radical sense – as none of us know it. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, there is no disarticulation from the colonial machinations of ‘the great game’, of the border writing routines, of the geo-political intrigue (and yes, we also need a democracy movement in the UK). It is time again to ask why we have these pantomime leaders, whether local despots or their Global avatars – why are they tolerated at all? Why do we put up with these ‘leaders’? I am reminded of Voltaire’s suggestion for those who wonder why monarchs do not give up their hereditary power when most people would ‘prefer’ a republic: he said we should go ask the mice who wanted to put a bell round th neck of the cat…

Cricket: I also recall that there is a Led Zeppelin tune called ‘Kashmir’, and I am fighting temptation to dig it out to listen for any hint at all of people’s movement. In 1987 I also visited Srinagar and thereabouts, stayed on Dal Lake – and got to met some of the Kashmiri separatists. The place is again in the news today as the Indian Army are apparently ‘suppressing’ protests in the wake of the Benazir assassination. (I remember Yusuf Chopra who ran a Houseboat called The Neal Armstrong – there was a gold framed letter in the guest house from NASA pointing out that ‘Professor Armstrong thanked Mr Chopra for the invitation, but had no intention of visiting’). The soldiers patrol the Lake today (it freezes over in December, we played cricket on the ice – hence years of bronchial bleargh…hack hack).

Anyway, tourism to Kashmir was scuppered after 1989 (and today Goa, for different – SEZ – reasons, may soon be off limits), but the problems of Kashmiris have not been settled – go ask Mohammed Afzal. Again a set of troubles that reaches back to superpower geopolitics and the consequences of Imperial border design.

My grandfather once wrote of seeing a Zeppelin in WW1, saying his elder sister called him inside from the road when the Zeppelin drifted by, saying ‘ere Tommy, come orf the road before yer get bombed’ – no doubt in a Geordie accent I cannot reproduce.

The Goa protests, and the comedy antics of white dreadlocked waifs on winter sabbatical from Manali, will I hope be reported by Lia – I’ll put a link on the links page when that comes through.

Terrorvisionaries (part two)

A talk at Nottingham University Politics department last night gave me a chance to elaborate my worries over new media anthropology in South Asia, pantomime terror and the hanging channel – following on from the talks I’ve given about the Mohammed Afzal case and the DIY Cookbook video from Fund^da^mental. The notes below presume you have read the earlier posts which are linked at the relevant points (sorry, a bit clumsy and it presumes a lot eh – still, these are notes to myself really – just a little more public than usual – but then all our data seems to be very very public these days, thanks to the chancellor and the lost personal details from the Child Support Agency – ha).

Televisonaries (part one) here should be read first, then come back here to read this post, but half way through slot in the DIY Cokbook and Bus posts as indicated after about four paragraphs…

‘Terrorvisionaries (part two)’:

The second example of cross platform public media storytelling is a diasporic one that involves my British-Pakistani mate Aki Nawaz. I have detailed the Aki story elsewhere, so merely refer you again to the links here.

In “Echographies of Television” (Derrida and Steigler) Derrida notes that televisual recording both captures immediacy more and can be more readily edited and manipulated, such that there will need to be a change in the legal axiomatics of the courts (p97 and 93). There is much that Derrida has to say of interest on television, the archive and justice, but sometimes Gayatri Spivak is much better on Derridean themes than Derrida himself. She apparently was working on the text of the Mahabharata – let us hope she will take it up again, and perhaps share views on elder brother Karna. Though he is not exactly subaltern, his position on the side of the Kauravas is at least interesting and the archival exclusion is operative, gridded over by a counter-female patriarchy and, as national and global reworkings of the narratives insert stories onto developmental teleology, neoliberal hype as well. The archive in Spivak is difficult, requires more effort than we usually can manage (‘more’ – persistent, language learning, privilege-unlearning, patient, painstaking scholarship) but her work on terror, suicide bombings and planetary justice is inspirational.

On the telematic, Spivak is more epistemological than Derrida – for her media would be something like knowledge, reason, responsibility, and so something to be conjured with, interrupted in a persistent effort of the teacher through critique to rearrange ordained and pre-coded desires. Not just to fill up on knowledge but to further transnational literacy and an ethics of the other. On terror: the ethical interrupts the epistemological. There is a point at which the construction of the other as object of knowledge must be challenged: ‘the ethical interrupts [law, reason] imperfectly, to listen to the other as if it were a self’ (Spivak 2004:83 “Boundary 2″, summer 80-111).

The task suggested here that seems most difficult to get our heads around is to accept complicity in a way that makes possible an identification, ‘alive to visible injustice’ (Spivak 2004:89) as well as ‘not to endorse suicide bombing but to be on the way to its end’ (Spivak 2004:93). Is there a message we can hear without an automatic move towards punishment or acquittal? Here the ethical and archival task of knowledge is to learn to learn what is in the mind, and what is the desire (or motivation?) of the suicide bomber. DIY Cookbook does something like this in a different way.

7/7 – buses, camera phones – Aki in the Guardian, backpacks, Charles De Menezes, DIY Video. As already riffed in the earlier posts on the Buses and on DIY Cookbook, here and here

Then return to the current post to continue:

The point is that here again an anthropology of media can be said to have made important moves to acknowledge cross platform significance in the media – saturated India – but also we might note that the acknowledgement that music tracks are a crucial make or break component of Bollywood film marketing only barely begins to get at the range of issues to be discussed in this field today.

The war on terror has achieved something that was previously only hinted at, partial, or only aspirational with regard to the place of South Asia in the world. Blown forcefully into the frontal lobe attention of all political actors, the obscurity of the previous Afghan wars, the regional nuclear detente, the peasant insurgencies or rural and hill tribals, these are no longer ignored. Front and centre, Islam on display, Pakistan a strategic player, India on alert. What multiculturalism and Bollywood could do only in a marginal and somewhat exotic way is exploded by a new visibility. But this is not just a media scare. Visibility maters where something is done with it – it is the first opportunity for a politics of redress that would build upon this (global) attention.

Call centres, news media, satellite, language, popular culture, tourism, humour, obscenity, gender, sex, digitization (of tradition), software and diaspora (India 2.0) all this suggests that media studies in this area are taking a broader scope and have advanced beyond the ‘coming of age’ stories that greeted Ramayana and Mahabharata, live cricket, and Bollywood on cable. This is to be welcomed.

Yet all is not rosy in storytelling land.

For all the publicity Sarai has garnered, it remains a small operation run out of CSDS. What it stands for however is more important – a still somewhat neglected area of academic and creative interest, deeply marked by a version of a technological cringe – the idea that new media is somehow new to India – and that the old politics are not also played out in the new news formats.

The exotic story of the new media arrival is the same orthodox binary obscurantism that ensures that stories of India abroad are either about rustic romance and tradition, morality, and colourful clothing, or else they are the dark side of communal violence, suicide bombing and disaster – the mismanaged nation post departure of the British, or blamed on Islam/Pakistan/Moguls/or Maoists. More nuanced positions are lost in favour of ‘the invisible or the hypervisible (stereotype)’ (Gopinath 2005:42). The ideological message here is that an India untainted by the ravages of imperial plunder might be preferred, and the NDTV ideal would have the Mahatma reading the news, but unfortunately the crisis is upon us, and in a flap chaos prevails. Anthropologists join the military effort (New York Times October 2007).

If we were to understand this material not only in juridical terms, or as requiring a transformation of the protocols of legal evidence and admissibility (no doubt this is necessary, as Derrida says), but also recognising that comprehension of media storytelling perhaps requires an appreciation of a wider sweep of mythological knowledge or epistemological reference (as Spivak might suggest), then to read the stories of Aki Nawaz as pantomime, or Mohammed Afzal as melodrama is somehow also warranted. This is not to disavow or diminish the urgent politics around the immediacy of these events – to challenge the demonization of Muslims in Britain, to oppose the death penalty and torture, to defend an individual from trial by media. But it is also to recognise something that shifts at a more general media level, where journalism gives way to SMS poll popularity, court procedures mimic docu-drama, tabloid sensations become the tactics of security services and similar.

To develop this is to recognise how patterns of melodrama and performance are played out in the way these events come to our attention. The pantomime season at Christmas is now matched with a sinister twin in July that commemorates the bus bombings with an equally ideological storytelling round – teaching kids fear and hate just as much as Christmas teaches them commoditization. The idea that pantomime is educational, rather than Orientalist – Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin – is just as much training in stereotype and profiling as are the melodramatic terror alerts each July (and September). These are constructed ‘panics’, each no doubt grounded in real evidence, solid intelligence, and careful analysis by Special Branch and MI5 – as Charles de Menezes and Mohammed Afzal both surely can attest. Aki Nawaz as ‘suicide rapper’ might almost be funny if it were not symptomatic of a wider malaise and complicity in our media reportage – a failure to examine critically and contextually what is offered up to us as unmediated ‘news’. What did it say on the side of the bus if not ‘Total Film’?

One way perhaps to disrupt the walled enclave or ‘green zone’ that is civil society, polite discussion and public commons also known as the privileged space of television news might be to hark back to older storytelling forms.

Its 30 years since Edward Said delivered Orientalism and though I might have some quibbles with what has happened in the wake of that text (too many historical studies, not enough now) I do believe it alerts us to something important and not yet nearly resolved. I can’t help but think looking to old texts might help us rethink new ones – hence the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights as away to refocus television…

The Mahabharata rehearses a fratricidal drama that tears everyone apart. Pakistan and India are not referenced there, but the tale of brothers split and fighting is a well worn trope, such that I think its time to move to other stories as a break. For me, its not so easy, inducted into the Arabian nights as a child, I feel betrayed because…

Instead, I imagine Roshan Sethi as a new kind of despotic Shahjah, entertaining Scheherezade only by email or SMS – because she was caught, detained and then by ‘special rendition’ she was interred in Guantanamo Bay, she texts out intermittently to Roshan. Forlorn drunken fool, her anguished reports reveal her having been interrogated all day yet again to the Gitmo Military Intelligence. This version of the 1001 nights is particularly obscene, but because Omar’s father is drunk in bed, watching Bollywood reruns, or Stephen Frears’ later fluff, the story just cannot get out. This is politics, its good to think something might more might be done today.

The character played by Roshan Seth might rant against the kind of journalism that enables this new cretinized media propaganda, but more than sozzled rants are required.

[image is the Nation logo - it should be spinning but blogger can't cope]


For a long time I have wanted to pay homage to the character played by Roshan Seth in “My Beautiful Laundrette”, a Stephen Frears film, written by Hanif Kureshi. Despite some problems with the film itself – ‘we did not fuck fascists, we fucked them up’ said one of my anti-racist South Asian comrades many years ago, there are some delicate touches – tee hee – in the film. The portrait of the vodka swilling, bed ridden, socialist journalist father of ‘white-boy-kissing’ Omar is among Seth’s best (see Desai 2004:vii). Seth has also played a wide range of roles in all sorts of films, including “Monsoon Wedding”, “Buddha of Suburbia”, right through to utter crap like “Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom”, his take on Nehru in Attenborough’s “Gandhi” and most memorably, as the KGB’s own Beria in a biopic of “Stalin”.

Trouble is, watching the films is the best way to pay homage, so instead I offer a few notes for a talk on Media in India, given on saturday at Sacred Media Cow.

Mythologicals from the very ‘start’ of film in India, with Raja Harishchandra, and on television from the serialization of Ramayana and Mahabharata in the late 1980s, have become the new stock in trade of media anthropological commentary. It is now a standard opening to mention how many ‘anecdotes abound’ (Dwyer – “Filming the Gods” 2006) about these shows – my own version as I have detailed elsewhere revolves around a TV set manifest as shrine, where the oil burner burns a little too well and the TV is reduced to ash, charred wood, and the short circuiting of an entire bustee area of Kolkata. Apocryphal or not, I can no longer remember. But in those days it was rare to see mention of television or film in ethnography, except perhaps as a knowing guilty indulgence.

Attention to Bollywood film changed all that. No longer was the art cinema of Bengal the primary visual media focus. [Though it took a little longer for diasporic films to get the attention they deserve (see Desai and Gopinath books recently out)]

To some degree we are still working through this opening today. There are a great number of anecdotes and studies of the hindi and other language filmi stars, the politics of film, the national allegory (pace Jameson v Ahmad) and the secret politics of our desires (Nandy) as well as a series of excellent conferences at Jadavpur University, Bangalore, Delhi and so on. Film Studies attest to a burgeoning sophistication. Add to this initiatives like SARAI at CSDS, and I think some of the directions of this conference are such that things can be said to have…

– I do not want to say that new media has ‘arrived’ with an explosion in the subcontinent. I would like to make an argument that there has always been a media sphere in India. That cross platform televisual media (satellite with talkback and audience participation via phone or street interview) has always been an Indian phenomena – television an Indian format accidentally invented by the British (to adapt a cricketing phrase by Ashis Nandy). We have to welcome further research on the various imbrications and innovations that bring the Adda to the screen, that offer cybermohalla, or Media Nagar, even doordarshan, ha ha, or that posit the information age – duly explained on the front page of their website – as Sarai. (though there is something slightly inappropriate in this perhaps – CSDS is not exactly a street people’s scene, nor is it a tavern). In any case, to elect Sage Vyasa and Elephant head, broken tusk, Ganesh, the co-producers of the extended family drama of the Pandava Five, as the patron deities of the media age, is not far-fetched, but I think perhaps there are other possibilities – I think of Karna, the disenfranchised sixth Pandava brother, son of Kunthi – this sixth brother might also prove to be significant.

Whatever the case, the media space of India has always been one of a certain density. I want to explore just two examples today where the convergence of television and other media seem to raise questions of an explosive character that might lead one to do as Omar’s papa did in Thatcher’s Britain – grab a bottle of vodka and take yourself to bed.

I once wrote a critique of the way South Asia and its diasporic cultural production (music and music video) was consumed as exotica. Still earlier I described how and entire city was constituted through various media – books, films, stories as a phantasmagoric site of poverty in need of benevolent Western aid. Today I want to look more closely at the dark side – the telematic mediation of terror – or terror-vision.

The first case is that of Mohammed Afzal and the English language news channel NDTV…

On December 13th, 2001, little over two months from another now overdetermined date, five men (at least) piled out of a white ambassador car that had driven into the grounds of the Parliament building in Delhi. The winter session was on, and guns blazing these miscreants/terrorists attacked, killing 9 people and then dying themselves in a hail of bullets, having failed to set off their car bomb as the detonator had been damaged in a collision with the President’s parked vehicle. Military deployed and border with Pakistan sealed, Terror legislation and terror threat level on high for a year, high profile court case, debate all through the press. Much to discuss.

As many commentators have said, it was a fairly incompetent raid. But among the commentators, Arundhati Roy for example, in ‘The December 13 Reader’, has questioned the swift ‘case cracked’ response of the police in arresting and bringing to trial four accomplices of the dead attackers. The reader published in December 2006, as well as a commentary on Kashmir published by the brother of one of the accused (Geelani, a lecturer at Delhi University), raises a whole series of disturbing questions that have become fairly common knowledge, but also something of a media circus – Vikram Chandra hosted a teleconference in a boxing ring to illustrate the stakes involved…

Three of the cases were eventually dismissed, only Mohammed Afzal was found guilty and sentenced to hang, so as to appease the ‘collective conscience’ of the nation. Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, had been a 20 year old border crossing militant youth in Kashmir, but had ‘surrendered’ to authorities in the early 1990s and then enrolled at university in Delhi. His experience with said authorities was of course not all pleasant – tortured and found to be ‘clean’ by one Davinder Singh, a man who proudly ‘tortures for the nation’, chillies and petrol enemas being the facilitators of storytelling here (even petrol seems to get the red hot vindaloo treatment now) – Afzal’s video ‘confession was judged illegally obtained and unsafe by the Supreme Court, making his conviction based upon serious, yet ‘circumstantial’ evidence of him being seen by a shopkeeper buying the mobile phones and explosives used in the Parliament raid (the phones left in the Ambassador), renting rooms to the five men (or were there in fact six attackers –CCTV footage restricted) and having possession of the computer upon which the fake ID cards were made, well, at the very least this is circumstantial. Media signs proliferate.

Found guilty and slated for hanging on October 20 2006, the television station NDTV screened Afzal’s video confession. They did so without mentioning that this was five year old and discredited piece of footage. It turns out, from reports by a Police Inspector, that this video was version three of a rehearsed statement. NDTV omit to mention the Supreme Court rejection of the footage, all the while allowing an on screen SMS commentary to announce, the ‘collective conscience’ view, that terrorists should hang, that Pakistan was behind it all, that the national institutions of law must be respected and due process must take its course. Let him hang.. At this time, Afzal’s execution was being reviewed on appeal, but the SMS poll seems to have decided his fate. The death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court on January 12 2007. Only a plea for clemency by his wife forestalls the hanging. President Abdul Kalam has yet to decide.

I am particularly interested here in the justice process as it is played out through the televisual public sphere. Arundahati Roy and other prominent intellectuals speak out, television stations set up opposing views and spokespersons of note. This is an elite mohalla discussion with commentary by SMS and phone of the lynch mob variety. I have written about the Hanging Channel as a satellite slot that could aggregate scenes such as Saddam Hussain’s hanging, movies like the Dead Man Walking, and reality TV scenario of the Afzal appeal, with SMS voting to allow the people to decide. For me this is quite bizarre.

NDTV then go on to host the successful show Airtel Scholar Search UK – a mobile phone company sponsored reality TV vehicle to bring a media and cultural studies scholarship student to Cardiff (they will get a surprise – winner announced September 22, 2007) also management students to Warwick, etc. A great publicity coup for UK teaching factories, in which the cultural construction of fantasy India and tamed public spheres proceeds apace (it was once thought the university was a place for rampant intelligence, now its sold like soap in TV, not even as smart as Crorepati).

The rest of this, discussing Derrida, Spivak, Steigler, I’ll save for another post, but the second example retold the story of the buses and my mates Aki and Dave’s singalong bomb song: DIY Cookbook. See Here and here.

Also see Sacred Media Cow

1857 – the cheeky chapattis

150 years ago. This text is somewhat overdue, as it as promised, then delayed, and reworked, then neglected, viciously, for too long. And its still not finished – these notes at least tell themain tale… Which is… That, in an important book which pretty much started the Gramsci influenced ‘school’ of Indian historiography called Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha tells a snappy little story about some chapatti’s that utterly confused the operatives of the British East India Company. Huzzar!

It seems worthwhile retelling the story once again, as has happened before. Guha writes in “Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India” that various numbers of chapattis – usually six – were transported from village to village as some sort of signal. The British noticed this, but had no explanation as to the meaning of the phenomenon. Guha notes that there were also circulating arrows and other weapons, but it is the chapattis that seem most to hold most interest, and the most promise. This was in 1855, and Guha of course relates this to questions of organisation in the lead up to the so-called ‘mutiny’ two years later.

One of the main innovations that Subaltern Studies historians offered was the idea that the historical record, in this case reports about mysteriously circulating sheaves of leavened bread, could be read against the grain so as to open up possible alternate readings, alternate histories (from below?). The historical record, written by the East India Company, shows certain troop movements and certain ‘intelligence’ concerns related to what can now be read as an organised preparedness on the part of villagers otherwise assumed to be sleepily subject to colonial rule. Guha here quotes Mao Zedong to underline his theoretical interest in the ways the peasantry, assumed to belong to a fragmentary polity, disaggregated (potatoes in a sack) and dispersed… Here, Guha suggests, is something similar to the solidarity of shared experience of oppression that Mao also found among the peasants of Hunan – subject to imperial power, they organise across perceived or assumed differences. The chapattis are a message that can be read as political communication today.

Unfortunately, when this story is retold in some social theory, the concerns of theory outweigh questions of organisation. Homi Bhabha also retells the story, but for him the chapattis are a sign of ambivalence, a cipher, open to … well, a theoretical arabesque that I appreciate – since the story of the chapatti is funny – but which misses the politics of rumour as organisation, or rather as evidence that questions of organisation must be asked.

[Here I want to bring forward a paragraph from chapter 8 of my Bad Marxism - I'm retelling, as I said]: “The debate hinges on Guha’s reading of the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of the peasantry, which is born of their shared ‘subjection … exploitation and oppression’ (1983:225). In the context of his discussion of the 1857 Rebellion, Guha quotes Mao Zedong’s 1928 argument that conditions of counter-revolutionary suppression in provinces that are adjacent to each other serve to unite the diverse elements of the peasantry in a shared and ‘common struggle’ (Mao 1928/197593). The people are united against the oppressor. Guha’s discussion is of the ways that rumours circulate to establish and support this shared consciousness. The key story is of the greased bullets that soldiers were required to use in the Enfield rifle, with the defiling fat being an affront to religious sensibilities, and, as is well known, a ‘mutiny’ of soldiers in Meerut sparked off an India-wide insurgency. Of course, to see the events of 1857 primarily in terms of the rumour of greased cartridges only facilitates the colonialist view that it was a ‘mutiny’ within the military rather than a more wide-ranging rebellion and revolutionary fervour that caught the public mood, but there is no question that this confrontation has its role.”

So when I get to read Bhabha, I wonder at the way he elevates what he calls ‘the slender narrative of the chapatti’ to do service for a theoretical argument about the ways rumour and panic circulate. Myself, I like chapattis, and I think the story of a very British officer (of the EIC), scratching his stiff upper lipped head trying to work out what on earth the chapattis mean, is a great one.

[Again from BM]: “In reading this episode, Bhabha wants to emphasise the ‘rumour and panic’ involved, and suggests that the ‘slender narrative of the chapatti’ symbolises the wider contexts of the rebellion (1994:202). Following Guha, Bhabha wants to read the rebellion and the ‘subject of peasant insurgency’ as ‘a site of cultural hybridity’ – the rumour of chapattis indicates a panic that ‘constitutes the boundary of cultural hybridity across which the Mutiny is fought’ (1994:206–7). The chapatti is a displacement of the Enfield rifle and its greased bullet, the ostensible trigger. For Bhabha, ‘Panic spreads. It does not simply hold together the native people but binds them affectively, if antagonistically – through a process of projection – with their masters’ (1994:203). He then identifies the British ‘projection’ of their own binding panic on to the story of the chapatti. The British did not know what to make of the stories of travelling bread.”

Rumour and panic. Guha is careful to tell us that he finds ‘nothing in the contemporary evidence to tell us what the circulating chapatti meant’ (1983:239). Bhabha sees them as symbolic of the ways the coloniser was bound up, however much in a hybrid and ambivalent way. Panic circulates, confusion. But I regret that Mao and organisation drops out of the discussion – the peasantry was organised we should not forget. And Mahasweta Devi’s tale of the Rani of Jhansi shows this clearly too [if you have not read this book you should, this year of all years - The Queen of Jhansi - Seagull Books, Kolkata. See Devi post].

[BM 8]: “It must be said that here Bhabha usefully notes that the coloniser is bound up with the colonised (co-constitution), but that he displaces the politics of this into the realm of translation is revealing: ‘in the very practice of domination the language of the master becomes hybrid’ (1994:33). The chapattis, drums, arrows and rifles become signs of hybridity as the ‘address of colonial authority’, in the discourse of the evangelical Christian missions, is threatened by ‘the oppositional voices of a culture of resistance’ (1994:33). This resistance is ambivalent so long as it remains talk. But, in a brilliant coda to his discussion, Bhabha evokes other rumours that spread panic, in particular about Christian conversion (hybridity) and an earlier mutiny, this time in Vellore in 1806, where the leather of belts and topis (hats) provoked panic (1994:210). The trouble is that we don’t hear much of the mutiny as an organisational question. When Guha mentions Vellore it is not hats but stories of salt contaminated by the blood of pigs and cows (1983:267) that are the focus. What has happened to common struggle? Apprehension of loss of freedom through forced conversion to Christianity is identified, with a glance towards Marx, as ‘a product of self-alienation’ (Guha 1983:268, Marx and Engels CWIII:339).

The key absence in Guha’s narrative, but more so in Bhabha’s distillation of the story, is the question of organisation that must necessarily be asked in terms of what is required for any ‘revolutionary consciousness’ to succeed against oppression. Clearly rumour is not enough, even if chapattis are part of the story; the arms cache has more political significance. The section Guha quotes from Mao, though he does not draw attention to it in the passage, is from Mao’s critique of localism in a subsection called ‘Questions of Party Organization’. Here Mao is writing against opportunists and ‘blind insurrection’ so as to build the Red Army into a ‘militant Bolshevik Party’ (Mao 1928/1975:93). Mao does not mention hybridity, but gives a subtle analysis of what is required for a political struggle that can succeed. His text, ignored at the time by the Chinese Communist Party leadership, then under Comintern influence, later became a key analysis of the character of agrarian revolutionary mobilisation.

Guha actually refers a number of times to exactly this Hunan-Kiangsi Report in his Elementary Aspects (1983:29, 48, 58, 67, 89, 135–6, 163). Indeed, he refers almost exclusively to this one text by Mao. In the retelling of the story by Bhabha, hybridity is admirably foregrounded, but what recedes is any chance of, or need for, a discussion of the shared experience of oppression that binds the peasants together sufficiently to organise an uprising. We are left with rumours, chapattis and only a faint echo of ‘revolutionary consciousness’.”

Bhabha, Homi 1994 The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.
Bhabha, Homi 1996 ‘Culture’s In-Between’ in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage. pp 53-60.
Devi, Mahasweta 1956/2000 The Queen of Jhansi, Kolkata: Seagull Books
Guha, Ranajit 1983 Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India Delhi: Oxford University Press
Mao Zedong 1928/1975 ‘The struggle in the ChingKong Mountains’ Selected Works vol 1, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, pp73-104
Mao Zedong 1937/1975 ‘On Contradiction’ Selected Works vol 1, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, pp311-347.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, 50 Volumes 1975-2005 MECW Moscow: Progress Publishers & Lawrence and Wishart

This is a draft. It is destined for the publication for 1857.org.uk
Lal Salaam

The Banana Pancake Trail

I’ve seen a lot of new discussion recently of comfort foods on the tourist trail. I thought I would excavate comments on this from my “Rumour of Calcutta” book. Hence the following reminiscence:

From Chapter One: “The confusion which reigns in this kind of tourism derives from a predicament where the consumption of its product – insofar as the product of tourism is more than snapshots and souvenirs – entails no obvious or easily accumulatable tangible possession. ‘Good works’, experience, and cultural capital is less easy to reinvest. However, all the productions of these travellers – comments, letters, photos, and so on – amount to an overwhelming ethnographic archive that would repay investigation as the script of the ongoing dynamics of capitalist appropriations and ongoing constructions of cultural difference. More than this, low-budget back-packer tourism plays a significant role in the world order of the capitalist cultural economy, and not only through the enormity of representations it helps produce. The ability to move to conveniently inexpensive market and service centres through the facility of international travel yields a relatively high buying power with attendant ideological, habitual and attitudinal consequences – back-packers who can live like Rajas in Indian towns at low financial cost. An expanding economy revolves around middle-class youth travellers, and engraves the principles of consumption upon even the most ethereal aspects of their lives. The hypocrisy with which some travellers are condemned for renouncing materialism while looking for the cheapest guest house room or dorm for their ashram stay is relevant here. It would be an error to think that the global low-budget ‘banana-pancake trail’(4) is not an important component of the ideology as well as the economy of touristic consumption.”

FN: 4 “I have used this term to refer to the duplication throughout Asia of budget guest-houses serving touristic ‘comfort foods’ which are little different to the fare available in such places world-wide. Peter Phipps takes up this issue in a thoughtful study of Australian budget travellers (Phipps 1990:16). A number of the ideas I raise in this work were originally worked out at the Gnocchi Club, and I am indebted to Nick Leneghan, Chris Francis and Peter Phipps.”

From Chapter Two: “Much remains to be understood about the ways we justify our actions to ourselves, and travellers are no different than other communities in this. The conventions of the banana-pancake-trail provide confusion minimising familiarities, as does the sense of closed community developed in the Modern [Lodge Guest House]. Volunteers have their roles already defined to an extent, there is little demand upon them to invent their own cultural spaces and responses to what they find as unfamiliar.
“The worst thing about travellers in India is listening to them moan about what a bad time they’re having – prats” (Catherine)”

From Chapter Four: “While travellers who stop ‘long-term’ in Calcutta disconnect from the conventional circuits of tourism to a degree, the non-glossy aspects of Calcutta can be ‘marketed’ as well. When the ‘everyday’ becomes more interesting than the monumental, difficulties and incongruities become routines of pleasure. Large hotels and swimming pools are ignored in favour of the rough romance of the banana-pancake trail and cheap ‘local’ colour. New conventions emerge to cater for market differentiations, so that recently one large travel publisher released a City Guide to capitalise on a very suburban experience of the city. The map promoted an ‘informed’ experience of Calcutta, including sites of various charity organisations selling handicrafts, emporiums, missions, and cultural markers for a kind of ‘alternative’ or ‘intelligent tourism’ that doesn’t seem too far removed from any other mode of consumerism. The danger here is that everything can be fitted into the mould of consumption (in this case through a kind of alternative policing of space).”

From Chapter Seven: “of course it is not enough just to raise questions about the moral propriety of first world youth taking holidays amongst the people of the third world; it is not enough to encourage discussion of such contradictions in cafes along the banana-pancake trail (as twelve year olds fetch tea from 7am till midnight)”

There is much more to say about the comforts of home, about the possibility that backpackers have in the third world of living the lives they can only read about in glossy celebrity lifestyle mags at home, about the psychic economy, and material economy, and of security in the ‘guest house’… much more… check the signage in the photo of the glorious Hotel Modern Lodge: ‘ideal place for foreign tourist’. Says it all really – and so I am off to Japan on wednesday – Tokyo ikimasho!.

Black Hole

It is 250 years since the Battle of Plassey. Why this atrocity? One among many… And what did it leave us historically? Clive, then rampant, was later to top himself, devastated and doddering, back in England. But not before the manufacture of that story about Calcutta that many know and mention, even if thy omit/forget/forge the details. The details are, at least by some accounts, seriously suspect.

Plassey was retaliation by the English for the Black Hole of Calcutta ‘incident’. Since the story of this Black Hole must be told, it can be in a critical version: Marx calls the incident a ‘sham scandal’ (Marx 1947:81). In an extensive collection of notes made on Indian history, Marx comments that on the evening of June 21, 1756, after the Governor of Calcutta had ignored the order of Subadar Suraj-ud-duala to ‘raze all British fortifications’ in the city:

“Suraj came down on Calcutta in force … fort stormed, garrison taken prisoners, Suraj gave orders that all the captives should be kept in safety till the morning; but the 146 men (accidentally, it seems) were crushed into a room 20 feet square and with but one small window; next morning (as Holwell himself tells the story), only 23 were still alive; they were allowed to sail down the Hooghly. It was ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’, over which the English hypocrites have been making so much sham scandal to this day. Suraj-ud-duala returned to Murshidabad; Bengal now completely and effectually cleared of the English intruders” (Marx 1947:81) 

Marx also reports on the subsequent retaliation against and defeat of Suraj-ud-duala by Lord Clive (‘that Great Robber’ as he calls him elsewhere Marx 1853/1978:86), and Clive’s 1774 suicide after his ‘cruel persecution’ by the directors of the East India Company (Marx 1947:88). There seem to be very good reasons to conclude that the black hole incident is counterfeit. The single report from a ‘survivor’ some months after Clive’s savage response to Suraj-ud-duala’s occupation of Calcutta – the massacre which was the Battle of Plassey – reads very much like a justification forged to deflect criticisms of brutality on the part of the British forces.

There is a confernce about Plassey on 24th June, 2007, in Whitechapel. Organized by the Brick Lane Circle. For details contact 07903 671787

For more on this black hole fakery, see Macfarlane, Iris 1975 The Black Hole, or the Makings of Legend, Allen and Unwin, London.

Marx, Karl 1947, Notes on Indian History, Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow.
Marx, Karl 1853/1978 On Colonialism, Progress Press, Moscow.

Revolutionary Tourism Tuesday 10 April 07

I prepared these notes on the plane back from Hong Kong for a talk in the afternoon yesterday – went well, though it got a bit ropey towards the end (I blame the jet lag – arrived Heathrow Tuesday 5.40am, gave talk at 2.30 PM. Wide awake again from 2 through to (so far) 6AM Wednesday – gnnnng):

“Plenary One – Enchantment”

“Abstract. Revolutionary Tourism: Everest Turns Red

The double visage of South Asia abroad is fantasy and sensation. On the one hand, the Hindi film glitz or traditional exotica of temples, rich fabrics, and pantomime handlebar moustaches. On the other, disaster, war, cotton-clad politicians discussing nuclear weaponry, Maoists, and pantomime handlebar moustaches. This doubled representation follows an ideological investment that eases and erases imperial guilt. From afar, it is clear (the wish is) that the vibrancy (temples, fabric) of South Asia has not been destroyed despite the (rarely or reluctantly acknowledged) impact of 300 plus years of colonialism and more recent structural adjustment programmes. Reassured by tourist brochures and travel reports that most of the temples and holy sites remain, the disasters are attributed to contemporary dysfunctions: poverty, corruption, mismanagement and revolutionaries. Such reasoning, sometimes explicit, affirms that South Asia’s problems are South Asian, and that the departure of paternal colonial rule was perhaps premature: a self-serving ideological psychic defence, to be resolved by more ‘development’ aid. This paper addresses the ways a new revolutionary tourism trades on the same (the same?) double aspect – the exotic charge of ‘alternative travel’ means meeting with the Maoist adds a frisson of excitement to what was by now a standard brochure scenario. The Maoists themselves take part in this representation game – Everest turns Red. I have a Communist Party of Nepal souvenir visa stamp to prove it (1000 rupees).”



I was pleased to hear the opening paper of this session, and indeed of the ASA ‘Thinking Through Tourism’ conference, started with an generous dedication by Tom Selwyn to Malcolm Crick. Malcolm was a provocative writer on themes like the silmilarities between tourists and anthropologists, on the anthropology of knowledge, on colonialism, and much more. He was also, despite some eccentricities like lecturing with his eyes closed, a very great teacher. A supervisor with dedication and a bibliophile to emulate. He is much missed.

Thank you for inviting me to talk. I presume this was done on the back of what is now an old book on Travel – 1996, The Rumour of Calcutta – a book I now hear may be out of print… Even the last time I discussed travel in print was also long ago, and suddenly I feel I must seem old and grumpy, lurching into middle to late youth, a grizzled veteran of the banana-pancake-trail, but too sclerotic to live that lifestyle anymore, to carry a backpack, or sleep in those budget dorms. Yet, I have come to tell travel tales once again. I’ll start with invocations of the famous quotes, here from that last piece in print: (in Bell and Haddour eds, City Visions 2000), where, when it comes to travel stories:

“perspective and ordering selection are the themes of this work which take up Derrida’s call (his is not the only call of this sort) alongside a Marxist analysis of money, for a ‘systematic reflection on the relations between tourism and political analysis’ at a time when tourism has become highly ‘organised’. Derrida writes that such an analysis ‘would have to allow a particular place to the intellectual tourist (writer or academic) who thinks he or she can, in order to make them public, translate his or her ‘travel impressions’ into a political diagnostic’ [Derrida 1993:215]” (Hutnyk 2000:40).

Derrida’s comment deserves attention but it is something of a rehash of Claude Lévi-Strauss lament in Tristes Tropiques:

“Nowadays [1955], being an explorer is a trade, which consists not, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern-slides or motion pictures, preferably in colour, so as to fill a hall with an audience …For this audience, platitudes and commonplaces seem to have been miraculously transmuted into revelations by the sole fact that their author, instead of doing their plagiarizing at home, has supposedly sanctified it by covering some twenty thousand miles” (Lévi-Strauss 1955/1973:16)

So, while I am interested in the ways some parts of Anthropology for a very long time have failed to take tourism studies, and exploration for that matter, seriously, and while I note that Travel Writing has entire conferences devoted to it (oh, so do we now, but travel writing also has a separate section in the LRB bookshop etc…) – I am not really that moved by the need to defend the disciplinary demarcations, or the interdisciplinarity that can now see us having papers in a tourism studies conference with themes as diverse as tourism and ghosts, tourism and Cuba, tourism and food; on airports, on souvenirs, on the post September 11world, and so much more. This is healthy, welcome, about time – we are no longer malarial and diffident, well not all the time – and despite the ways some colleagues continue to scoff (“you call that fieldwork?”. Well, do you cal that fieldwork?), I do not want to indulge in any boosterism for travel studies. Without needing a visa stamp, tourism is subject for many and different debates, and this conference is welcome if it can be that.

My debate, today then, will be a small corner of the global travel apparatus. I have returned from new fieldwork in South Asia. Having been interested for a long time in travellers who visit the city of Kolkata, and more recently Orissa, Bengal, and the Red Everest of Nepal, I’ve spent my last three research visits to India interested in tourists who are interested in Maoism. (I used to run an alternative tour of Calcutta’s left sites – the CPM bookshop; the India coffee house; Seagull Presss to pick up Mahasweta Devi’s texts; the US embassy located on 1 Harrington St, where the name of street was changed to Ho Chi Minh Sarani; the Marx and Engels statue; the Lenin statue; and the CPIML(TND) Saifuddin group office on S.N.Banerjee Rd – Zindabad….

I started out on this new research with an interest in souvenirs and trinkets.

Trinketization is a double diagnostic of exactly the type Derrida might despair:

- critique of focus that neglects material objects as the world is seemingly reduced and desiccated into commodity-souvenirs, but critique of neglecting to contextualise this process, a critique of remaining at the level of the commodity when the souvenir needs to be related, variously, to the market, to circulation, to memory, to the state…

Lévi-Strauss’s lament about slide-shows might now be lent to the status of the souvenir in anthropology – we sit grinning like monkeys in a zoo at the latest cultural curio, the hybrid post-tourist irony, the plastic Taj Mahal, the Kali figure refashioned to do service as Santa Klaus…

The curio-souvenir that got me going first of all is one now quite easy to collect. I first saw it, of all places, in a scene in Michael Palin’s fairly light entertainment TV mini-series Himalaya.

A prime time BBC show it was – and I watched it the same week the Nepaleses Maoists had blockaded Kathmandu, and a BBC News report declared:

‘Tourists hoping to visit a mountain Shangri-La have been surprised’ (BBC Paul Reynolds, April 22, 2006).

I am amused that Shangri La can be relocated so often – in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, – See The Razors Edge, 1942 version Tyrone Power, Later 1984 Bill Murray… [some ad lib here about Murray searching for enlightenment up the mountain, burning books to stay warm]

But back to the Python… [Summarize this from earlier]: Palin’s epic presents what London academic Paul Gilroy calls a ‘postcolonial melancholia’ (Gilroy 2004 After Empire Routledge). Palin holds a candle, as they say, for the good old days of the British Raj. This is a Raj of nostalgic fantasy, where enemies, subjects, and infuriating lackeys, are now renovated and romanticized in a battered picture book of faded glories. Yet there is the semblance of ‘news’ reportage built into this picture. Episode three, for example, begins with an announcement from Palin that disavows the tranquillity that a romantic traveller might well expect, and he will soon learn that: ‘things in Nepal are not always the way they look, as communist insurgents have been waging war against the government’. After a spectacular micro-jet flight across the mountains, Palin arrives first of all in Lekhani in the company of a recruiting agent for a British Ghurkha regiment. The irony of arriving with the military is lost on him (‘this has been a tradition for over 200 years’) and the ‘problem’ of ‘the Maoists’ is made manifest only when the stiff-lipped British Gurkha agent, Lieutenant Colonel Griffith, does not return to the village in which Palin is camped. Understanding that the Maoists have ‘kidnapped’ Griffith, the crew and entourage nervously depart a place that had previously ‘seemed like a rustic backwater’, but now ‘friendly villagers seem like potential kidnappers’. There is a rush for the main road and it is only in Pokhara that it transpires that the agent was unharmed. This reassurance coming not before Palin has an encounter with three Israeli budget travellers who tell him that at the start of their trek they had been stopped by Maoists who demanded 1000 rupees and issued them with receipts, with a red flag stamp, that authorized travel in the region. Palin’s budget does not extend so far, and there is no need to name, or interview, any really existing Maoists, but he has the drama his story needs.

[Later on the BBC ‘Culture Show’, Palin admits that he has been criticised for ‘not getting to the bottom of why the Maoists were in Nepal’, and for not visiting detention camps and the like. On this show Palin is described as a ‘national treasure’ who presents a nostalgic, if bumbling, lost imperial grandeur. (‘The Culture Show’ BBC 7 October 2006).]

But our intrepid presenter Palin is here on a quest. He carries the viewer into the mountains in a way wholly unlike the load bearing Sherpas who carry our kit.

Contrast the adventure news items of the BBC reportage, or Palin’s ultra-light arrival story, with this from the internet:

Nepal Maoists bomb TV station (February 26, 2005 10:35 IST)

Heavily-armed Maoists torched and bombed a regional station of the state-run Nepal Television, causing damage worth over Rs 4 crore and disrupting the broadcast indefinitely even as the security forces gunned down 10 rebels and lost four of their own men in a clash in the west of the kingdom. The regional station of Nepal Television at Kohalpur in Banke district of mid-western Nepal was torched and bombed by hundreds of Maoists on Friday, NTV sources said. The regional broadcast of the NTV has been disrupted indefinitely after the explosion. … The Maoists also looted seven cameras and several other equipment from the station. However, no one was injured in the incident, the sources said.

Not sure how much of this report should be taken with a grain of salt – ten gunned down but no-one injured?? But the revolutionary struggle in Nepal has for a long time been producing stories like these. I am collecting, but omit here, a large archive of revolutionary tales… Yet after 10 years of insurrection, the BBC can still preface reports on Nepal with mock astonishment: ‘Just when it seems that revolutionary communism has all but disappeared in the world’ (Alistair Lawson BBC 6 June 2005).

My beef with the travel story version of Nepal is that, like the rest of South Asia, the country appears on the world screen most often as a ‘realist’, but usually tragic, news item. Palin later says, ‘I perhaps make it too easy to see these places that might otherwise only appear as news items during a crisis or disaster’ (‘The Culture Show’ BBC 7 October 2006). [It does seem significant that developments subsequent to the King’s climb down have not had the prominence of the strikes and protests of April. In August a deal on weapons and UN monitoring was reported, but not widely. See BBC website article by Charles Haviland ‘Why Nepal still faces many hurdles’).]

In South Asia this plays out a double game: the focus is always on what I might call ‘Exotica-Terror’. Images of photogenic but stranded villages awaiting rescue from cyclone, flood, earthquake, riot or famine. Images of high mountain military stand off and besieged temples, mosques. Tourism and television are particularly well suited to containing tragedy in a box. On the small screen it is images, stereotypes or clichés that move. ‘Things happen to images, not people’ as the French theorist Gilles Deleuze once said (and I quote this like a souvenir, which equally contains). But representation of Asia indicates a corresponding nether side to the tragic image – there is also a simultaneous positive gloss that is equally ideological – the fascination with tradition. Sound bite emotional containment fuels the global rumour of a mythical third world Asia that is both traditional in dress and architecture (the Taj Mahal, camels, rustic musicians) and is a modern mess born of a debased modernity, that perhaps (the argument implies) only the restitution of colonialism could redeem, (in the mindset of the imperialist powers).

The double play of terror and exotica is often remarked by the travellers I’ve met, and who also collect these souvenirs. ‘They had huge guns’; they had ‘home made guns’; their eyes ‘burned with fervour’; they were ‘so committed’; ‘women revolutionaries’. The double play here is ‘good native field native’ – a disciplinary routine from old colonialism now gone global (at home this ideological couplet is: moderate Muslims v. sleeper cells who reject British values).

I am reminded of Gyanendra Pandey on the duplicitous designations of violence. His book, Routine Violence 2006 contrasts items that are counted as violence alongside some that are not:

- Hindu Muslim violence at Partition, but not World War Two

- kamikaze, but not carpet bombing

- suicide bombings in Iraq but not the razing of houses by the Israeli forces (add invasions of Lebanon, and CPM attacks on peasants in Bengal – pic of the Bandh)

- 1857 natives killing and raping English women (Veena Das in her 2006 book Life and Words reports this as false for Cawnpore at least) versus the English response – executions by hanging, tourching of entire villages

- warlordism in Afghanistan but not Guantanamo bay

- public beheading but not the electric chair


I note that in Palin’s Himalaya a critique of the militarization of Nepal by the Maoists comes just after the section on British recruitment of Gurkhas…

But my interest is in those Moaist visa stamp souvenirs as an event for traveller tourists – souvenirs from the dark side – risqué. Like the image of Che, Mao badges, or Cultural Revolution posters, the erotic terrorism of tourism is more pronounced. A frisson of excitement.

As Maoism becomes a tourist attraction (at least for academics), the Maoists themselves are not slow to see… Will Maoists continue to recognise opportunities for tourism? Can there be a Maoist tourism? Maoist tour guides? Brochures for Red Everest?

- there are reports of Maoists allowing safe passage to National Parks, charging a fee for entry to base areas

- or is this just a red tax scam that anyone with a khaki shirt and a gun can play for 100 rupees

The question of what revolutionary tourism might otherwise be has been discussed by the Maoist leadership – most recently by Comrade Gaurav AKA Chandra Prakash Gajurel. Will it be merely a cash cow, or is something more possible?:

- Souveniring flags, badges, leaflets, posters, pictures of wall graffiti (banned in Kolkata last election)

- Or educational visits, road building campaigns, solidarity, information tours

The trouble is that my double visage view of Terror-Exotica must also apply to revolutionary tourism as well. The servicing of postcolonial melancholia proceeds apace even amongst the red brigades. We look for hope in foreign struggles but do not advance a revolutionary politics at home – in the heartless heart of imperialism that seems implausible. We cannot even imagine revolution here but we can (entertain ourselves) with the idea over there. ‘We’ here of course slides in reference for us explorer/knowledge worker/ESRC funded radicalization experts, and as knowledge worker drones of Empire ‘we’ also can be what Mahasweta Devi calls the comprador Bhadrolok elites of a city like Kolkata, enamoured with critiques of the CPM, but distant, and out of touch with the MCC – safe in the College Street Coffee houses discussion the possible meanings of the 40th anniversary of Naxalbari.

I am of course also waiting to see what use the Maoists make of the seven video cameras looted from the Kohalpur television studio while the station was burning. Mao TV!

[The first image is of Red Everest, taken from Palin's Himalaya. The second picture is from the Bandh called after Nandigram; the third picture is self-explanatory (from the camping goods store, Auckland, soon after doing a radio slot with Nabeel on [corrected] Base FM [oops, it was the same building as George FM]). The second picture of McDonalds is from Opening Night of the first store in Kolkata – the queue was 250 people long when I walked past. The CPM foreign capital investment project can even turn great Calcutta nightclubs – the site of the Jazz venue Blue Fox – into Gold(en arches). Comes as no surprise.]

Nandigram and Cricket

Sorry to say that some cricket metaphors might be abused below – its time to resurrect the old colonial games-shames…

Sports latest: West Bengal lal-rounder Buddhadeb Battarcharjee was implored to recognise that CPM was in serious strife over the ‘firings’ in Nandigram mid week. This became acute when former chief minister Jyoti Basu said on friday what the other Left Front coalition partners had wanted to say, but thus far just sledged from the sidelines. Basu, a tail-ender that wags, declared: ‘comrade, get your act together or lose’. Subcontinental news reportage favours ‘alacrity’ as a watchword, and Buddhadeb thereby was said to have agreed to change line and length so as to consult with the partners (RSP – formed in the thirties, and Forward Block) and, I guess more importantly, he conceded that the Nandigram villagers would not be asked to give up their land. If this means the CPM’s economic program and its plan to attract greater FDI is stumped, what it means for the Indonesian investor in the proposed SEZ is now unclear, but there was one funny comment about the investor – ‘who is this Saleem chap anyhow, can he bat?’ – the company is called Salim PLC, but I also do not know their form or record – so will have to look it up in Wisdens [right, enough, its time to put a stop to all this cricket spin malarkey...].

So it comes to pass that the situation at Nandigram is resolved. Or ‘perhaps’ resolved – since there were a number of other measures in the package, such as bridges, roads, infrastructure projects. Whatever may be the case, the day of the Bandh (the entire city was shut down to protest the firings) looks more and more like a multifaceted coup. Though there is a slight danger of relying on standard visitor observations and cliché, for me it is somewhat personal and maybe oblique observations that stick in the mind. The streets were free of traffic, the air seemed so much cleaner, the city sounded so different, and I walked around for hours amidst middle-of-the-road cricket matches, with stumps made of bricks, old tyres, boxes etc. That this could happen while in the Caribbean, the Indian team floundered in the Cricket World Cup, comprehensively beaten by Bangladesh. So its interesting that street cricket thrives so well in the Bandh. Kolkata’s traffic most days forces the kids onto the already crowded pavements, on this day they took over the open spaces (only the intersections had vehicles – parked cop jeepneys and the occasional press car – nothing else moved, or if it did, it was burned – as happened to two buses in the south of the city.

Of course cricket is not incidental to politics in India (see Ashis Nandy’s book The Tao of Cricket, second only to Beyond a Boundary by CLR James as text on cricket and colonialism). So, Buddhadeb, is there a message for you here? Should the CPM go for the hype and rhetoric of shining India, FDI, capital investment, slick flyovers, and the consequent decline of Kolkata as one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities I have ever seen, or does the evident resilience of cricket as popular/vernacular expressive form suggest that there is something wrong with the plans for the Great Lunge Forward toward Neo-Liberal Capital implied in the SEZ development projects. I don’t know what answers the Left Front coalition can come up with, or if they have any, or if the Maoists in Nandigram and elsewhere can take their struggles to a level beyond the Not-In-My-Rice-Patch NIMBY-level… and of course cricket does not dissolve the gross inequalities of wealth in India, or even halt – rather it occludes – the increasing polarization of rich and poor, but I would like to think, on this day of the bandh, the flourishing of popular vernacular cricket can be a symptomatic marker of the score, what people do on strike days maybe suggests a diagnostic: the elite players fluffed it, the people went out and played…

More Nandigram discussion, rumours, global chat, horror scenes: here.

Terror as a State action. Contextualized ESRC Reprise/Response from an Unusually Quiet City

On that Terror Research Initiative from the ESRC. I just wrote in support of those Goldsmiths anthros that are preparing a critical response from across the college. I thought I would share my text since its a way to update on what I am doing here/preoccupied with just now. Earlier news and views about the research call, and some comments from other folks, is here.

Why do this? I think it is important to make ESRC recognise that their version of research and how people [they are only interested in Muslims] get ‘radicalized’ is so viciously simplistic that its dangerous, mercenary, and wholly ignorant of just how complicated events can be ‘in the round’ [not that I found much round here yet, still]. So, here is my letter to the College movers and shakers, followed by some contextual notes on current ‘research’ environs:

Hi from Kolkata

I certainly support a response from Goldsmiths that censures the ESRC et al for making research difficult in this way – its not just about risk, but reputation and political affiliation. In this part of the world, and in my research in Kolkata, the status of the researcher, their associations, affiliations etc, are a matter of intense scrutiny. Reputation and credibility are crucial.

And its already come up – as I work in an environment that is, to understate it, very tense at the minute. A total strike today, since the CPM State Govt set the police upon villagers who did not agree it was a good idea to raze their huts to make way for a Special Economic Zone. At least 14, but maybe 50, dead on wednesday, unknown number yesterday… In a symmetry response it seems, ‘Naxals’ killed 55 security personnel in Chhattisgarh. In this environment, moving anywhere near this action means being called to account. As a researcher from a University in England I can pass where, were I a journalist, things might not go so smoothly. This would change I expect when researchers are rebranded by the ESRC as security operatives in the war on terror…


I guess some further explanation might be in order. Not sure I can make things all that clear – still seeking. Though, I should point out that I am not trying to get to Chhattisgarh - that was just a piece in the news today that ran alongside the CPM firings – but I did look to travel to check out Nandigram – but no chance. Some background will suggest anyway that staying in Kolkata is sensible: here the CPM (Communist Party of India Marxist) is the ruling state power and has been – since elected – the ruling partner in the Left Front Government of Bengal for about 30 years. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is the present Chief Minister – I once handed out how to vote flyers for him (for about 20 minutes – that was 92 I think, a little left tourist-exotica-mongering really. I did not get to meet him, but his Party cadre were enthusiastic). Now, in search of foreign investment, CPM want to set up a special economic zone in Nandigram,where an Indonesian group called Salim PLC will develop the zone, It is said to impact upon many thousands of local people who lived, until now, in this agricultural region (its across the harbour from Haldia – a place I visited in 1988 – pretty ‘underdeveloped’ I’d say, rice fields, ponds, fisheries). Over the past two days CPM have been ‘reclaiming’ the villages where ‘Maoists’ were arming the peasantry. Seems strange that a ‘communist’ government called in the police on a Maoist opposition. Chaos… The fluctuation in the numbers of dead has been strange too, no-one can agree on a figure and it seems surreal. The dead and injured were mostly female peasantry defending their villages from ‘development’. Yaay Government, yaay Capital!. In the city, Mamanta Banerjee, a kind of opportunist from the Triminool Congress, inflamed the situation somewhat, trying to score points, joining the Maoists in the call for the Bandh… perhaps threatening another hunger strike… Setting off to Nandigram, she was blocked by CPM activists. BJP making noises. The BJP, Triminool and Maoists v CPM seems like an unholy array of forces. Police insisting the Maoists fired on them first. Some say 50 dead. It is hard to get a clear idea of what is really going on, and the city is shut down.

The Hanging Channel

On friday we have a protest meeting about the Afzal Guru lynching planned in India. Many are disturbed by the trial in which a Kashmiri man, picked up after an attack by some ‘miscreants’ on parliament, was allegedly tortured into confession, which was then telecast, and the courts decided Guru was to be hung.

Afzal Guru was not actually a part of the Dec 13, 2001 attack on the Parliament in Delhi by five men – who were all killed in the action – but he was picked up with three others the next day under the ‘Prevention of Terrorism’ act.

A stay on execution was gained by campaign groups when the hanging had been scheduled for October 30th 2006, but the television station NDTV screened the confession, and questioned whether it was extracted under torture (as the court itself had been forced to admit). The bizarre thing is that the television station then held a text message vote on whether he should be hung. Did that really happen – a television SMS text-in vote to promote a hanging? Alongside the Shilpa Shetty – Jade Goody et al racism row on Celebrity Big Brother here in London (with international diplomatic impact and commentary by Prime Ministers and more), we can only conclude that today, increasingly, television is terror-vision, as entertainment and as news. Both are worse, as Lenin would say. The televised hanging of Saddam of course also comes to mind, such that I now think a Hanging Channel on satellite cannot be that far away. Especially as it is also reported today that Britain’s prisons are ‘full’. I can imagine Rupert Murdoch will happily fund such a channel for SKY, with OJ Simpson as guest compere perhaps.

I’ve written on the displacement that the racism row on Big Brother achieves elsewhere (Jade was racist, but bombing Afghanistan and Iraq and sending still more troops is more … here) and I’ve written on Saddam’s Swing (here), but I am afraid that writing, and even filming – remember Injustice – seems somehow inadequate in these terror-vision days. Last night I went to a benefit screening of the Peter O’Toole vehicle “Venus” organised by English Pen for the Writers in Prison programme. O’Toole being nominated for an Oscar the day before, seems like something. But writing against death, torture, detention, war… all I can do I guess is turn up and, like PEN, however meagre my rants in comparison to their campaigning, to keep on saying such stuff to whoever few may listen, if they have open ears, to whisper, to suggest, to promote the rumour of another potential…

Writing as a way to open ears,
a pen as a spike to the brain…

The details for the friday protest and case background are:


Friday, 26 January 1.30pm-4.30pm
India House, The Aldwych, London WC2
(nearest tube: Holborn)

On December 13, 2001 the Indian parliament was attacked by five men. They were killed by the security forces but even today their identity remains a mystery. Three other men, who according to the police masterminded the attack, have also not been found.

However, on 14 and 15 December, 2001 the investigating agencies together with the Special Cell of the Delhi Police picked up four persons, all Kashmiris, and charged them with the offence of conspiring to attack the parliament under India’s notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

After a nationwide campaign for a fair trial, two of them, Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani and Navjot Sandhu who was jailed along with her newborn baby, have been acquitted of all charges, a third, the husband of Navjot Sandhu, has had his death sentence converted to ten years in prison. But the fourth Afzal Guru was due to be hanged on October 20, 2006. A stay on his execution has been obtained by the Save Afzal Campaign through a Mercy Petition, and he is now being held in Tihar jail inDelhi. But he is still facing a death sentence.

Who is Afzal Guru?

AfzalGuru was involved with the JKLF for only three months in 1990 when large numbers of Kashmiri youth were attracted to the movement. During these three months he neither received any training nor took part in any activities. For details see his wife Tabassum’s letter:http://justiceforafzalguru.org/background/tabassum.html

After he surrendered he was constantly picked up by security forces, asked to spy on people and also routinely tortured. He eventually decided to move toDelhihoping to be left alone but even here the notorious Special Task Force caught up with him and continued to harass him.


His trial was a mockery of justice since he was denied an opportunity to defend himself – he did not even have a lawyer.Afzal was not involved in the actual attack on the Indian parliament and he did not kill or injure anybody and the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that there was no direct evidence against him, only circumstantial. However the court has sentenced him to death because in their words the“the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender… The appellant, who is a surrendered militant …is a menace to society and should become extinct.”

Abu Ghraib style torture and media collusion

In the Special Cell of the Delhi police Afzal was kept naked for two days and beaten mercilessly – once by a man who later appeared as a prosecution witness; police officers urinated in his mouth saying ‘This is the way you can break your Roza(fast)’. After he was tortured he was handcuffed and made to sit on a chair and forced to ‘confess’ at a media conference. But television broadcasts did not show the handcuffs and did not show the men who tortured and humiliated him. On the 15 and 16 of December 2006, New Delhi Television (NDTV) re-ran the ‘confession’ several times although they had been informed that by now that the Supreme Court of India had rejected it and the High Court had reprimanded the police for it. The programme was accompanied by remarks such as‘See how natural, how truthful, how fluent his statement appears’ and ‘Who can believe that such a statement can be given under torture’. They then invited viewers to act as a virtual lynch mob by soliciting SMS messages from them asking whether Afzal should be hanged in light of the tape telecast by them.

Right-wing Hindu chauvinist forces of the Sangh Parivar have continually harassed members of Afzal’s campaign while calling for Afzal to be hanged.

Afzal Gurufaces a death penalty although:

  • There is no direct evidence against him and he is known not to have injured or harmed anyone
  • The Courts have found that the investigating agencies deliberately fabricated evidence and forged documents against him and others accused.

Currently Afzal is waiting for the results of a Mercy Petition but the decision of the courts is extremely uncertain. Even after enormous efforts by his campaign he is being denied basic rights in prison – he is not allowed to go out of doors for even half an hour of sunlight and the Red Cross who have access to Kashmiri prisoners have not been allowed to visit him.


See you there.


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