Arvind 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 Queen 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.