Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"For India to win....."

Nationalism, patriotism, is a hoax. There are historical reasons for its emergence as a social force. Those reasons are not under dispute. But as an attitude, as an ideal to follow and propagate, its fraud is pretty apparent if one could look at its functionings without it playing in one’s head.

An interesting example to begin with is how easily it injects geopolitics in sports, and food, and things like that. We have just seen a glimpse of this in the two sports tournaments held of late: the Euro cup, which saw massive riots between soccer fans of various countries, and the cricket world cup. Having a more personal experience of the world cup, I’d like to point out some telling examples from it. The first most obvious, yet incredibly overlooked aspect is that patriotism is a selling commodity, with highly inelastic demand. In a world where food and other essentials are being kept away from so many, nationalism is the stuff of mass spoon-feeding. Such drivel as put in advertisements, devoid of wit, sense, or aesthetics, is still accepted if it calls out to the patriot in us, much as god calls out to the devotee in us. Commentators on radio and television chant on and on the requirements “for India to win”, seven times often between six balls bowled. The commentator’s purpose seems to be to tell his audience what they must be bothered about. Had this been a gladiator’s fight in a Colosseum, we couldn’t have told the difference. Did we not see a flag representing the Indian Army in the match against Pakistan waving in the crowd? A radio transmission of a cricket match had its commentator suddenly losing his voice in the middle of a sentence; when his co-commentator resumed after an awkward gap of five seconds, we learned that a player of our beloved team, “our player” had just been bowled out. As we understood that our run-rate did not qualify us for the semi-finals, the cameras in the TV transmission flashed to us constantly clips of the supporters of Pakistan, sporting T-shirts of South Africa, since it could now prevent our entry in the semis over theirs. If we took the broadcast company’s bait – which many of us did – we would be among those delusionals who refuse to clap at the rival’s shots because we just cannot see they’re playing good, who feel that those Pakistanis have no moral fibre because “they can stoop down to wear another jersey”, “they are at it again, heckling us”, and such other ruses, not for once recalling our bad mood a few hours ago when they defeated a team we lost to.

The person who’s patriotic – and today this mostly means chauvinistic – because he feels the enemy is constantly scheming feels justified because he is given so many examples, of which even if many are manufactured, many still are true. However, even those examples are reflections of what “the enemy” has seen in us. So even if there is a sense of self-righteousness, but deceit from outside, this exists on both sides. And when we would see the networks of industry and realpolitik between the two sides, this illusion would be broken. Therefore, one is shown as little of this as possible. The problem isn’t that they are bad; the problem is that we aren’t very different from them, and as they cling to their powers and terrors, so do we to ours.

Constraints over entertainment industry, even if real and necessary, have some looseness in application which seems “allowed” in some sense. So, when cricket “analysts” question the Duckworth Lewis score system when their team has lost, but look at it in askance in another hour, we laugh at it but also know that it matters little. However, much more is expected from news-broadcasting. Let us see what is delivered: a radio broadcast on the day of Gandhi Jayanti spoke about “tribals and local officials in the Andamans paying eager homage to the father of our nation in a sarvadharma prarthna (all-religious prayer ceremony)”. This is a rare message from those faraway islands; what is disturbing is that everyday there is an industry waiting to turn those islands into a major tourism zone, even more disturbingly into some sort of a “primitive man zoo”, very much with the permission of the state. But, since “the tribals” have paid homage, they must be “one of us”, so things cannot be bad for them. In Gujarat, the same ceremony was held in the name of that vile rioter Narendra Modi. Likewise, in a state that is liberal in principle, it no matter of shame or oppression for a foreign minister to say angrily, possessively “Kashmir is an integral part of India” at a UN forum, much as one may say that a certain tree falls in my backyard. Apparently, these reasons are adequate to ban the consumption of gutka and liquor from the Andamans and Gujarat (“as was Gandhi’s belief”), to deploy massive armies in “disturbed areas” (an inheritance from colonialism).

That nationalism is a powerful force has been known since long; what truly reinforces this fact is that it is so effective still, in spite of the many indications of its harms to those very people who have espoused it. It is a tribunal for those who are presented with it: the next time you see someone swearing by the nation, do observe if you can see traces of his being coerced into it by our situation. At the same time, it distracts beautifully. Our Prime Minister recently made a strange comment: he equated the opulence of the few rich, “our” economy, to matters of “national security”; apparently, he has faith over the garbing properties of the phrase “national security”, much as this term invokes memories of terrorism, amplified by predatory media that has silenced everybody in its noise. The biggest advantage that nationalism has is that it is like a capsule that can be doled out by a small clique of people, and then spreads on its own. That’s why the state wants to be seen at its fountainhead, and also those nationalist movements that emerge from a large chunk of people eventually tend to statism. We would find plenty of examples: Gorkhaland, Telangana, so on and so forth. Even those “revolutions” that are anti-nationalistic in their outlook – many of the Communist states formed in the 1900s – bear notorious marks of branding as “betrayal” or “counter-revolutionary” any activity that seeks to differ from what the high-command has in mind.

Nationalism takes the place of other tendencies that are not so emotional, so irreflexive, and so inflexible as it is. All sorts of movements where people have raised protest over legitimate demands have known, often have been stunted by, the heavy hand of patriotism of some kind which tells them what they think is unimportant compared to what the powers have planned. Or else, they are co-opted by it. We are seeing this in Koodankulam and Kalapakkam, where even the judiciary believes the real question is not what the people think about the plant, but whether the nuclear plant is safe or not. We saw this in the case of the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union struggle in IMT-Manesar, Haryana, where the state unambiguously supported the management in every way possible, first in apathy towards a management’s high-handed and violent attempt to break the workers’ right to organize themselves, and then in hounding them with greatest judicial speed possible. Moreover, when Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. showed signs of moving out of Haryana, Narendra Modi (an icon of today’s nationalism) sprang up to invite them, saying he could build a bigger garrison for them to set up their factory in, to exploit cheap, desperate hands, and keep them under the leash of hired muscle-power of the same class of men. The truth is that everyone is well aware of these things: demolition of shanties, rural distress, casualization of labour, all these are tied, eventually, to the fingers of the state. However, there’s a veil of nation and allegiance to nation (hence to state) that makes these seem legitimate state of affairs.

Today, Indonesia is added to all those places in Africa, Arabia, Europe and the Americas where people have discarded questions about whether the nation is important or not, and asked if power must be entrusted to the state. In Indonesia, millions of workers have entered the streets denouncing their casualization. Even this list is not exhaustive: there are many other places where protest is the norm of the day. Meanwhile, how we can look above the questions of nation would decide what we can do for ourselves as autonomous people. There’s definitely a lot to be done.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Making sense of Anonymous' Operation India

The wave of protests that the world was swept with in 2011 is claimed to have trickled down in India: how far and to what effect, that's the question we ask. The controversy over Anna Hazare aside – that is, whether or not it should be considered a part of that world-wide wave – this time Anonymous has managed to put up an Operation India. They have managed to reach to a huge class of internet users, especially those social-network friendly people centred across many cities (even if this network misses out many places systemically), and has managed to put in place a physical protest. Hence, trying to understand them is somewhat justified, in spite of the many temptations against such an exploration.

AI opposes certain developments in internet-regulatory laws, which broadly imply:

  1. that the govt. has access to social-network postings of users of these social networks
  2. that there will be increased regulation of 'objectionable material' online, and provided that complaints are made by those aggrieved by something, such material would be asked to be taken offline
  3. that public hosting web-sites (torrents, certain video web-sites) will no longer be permitted to operate, in toto

Much of the present furore is limited to these demands. Which is a pity, because one expects much more from them when one reads of them. (Details found on the OpIndia page)

The parent of AI – A – claim that their purpose is to expose “government and establishment hypocrisy”. In their version of history, The Indian Government has been making strong laws that allow them to invade your privacy and to censor your free speech since 2008.” From the outset, two things are clear: the outlook of AI coincides with the most ignorant of presuppositions that fills the dominant Indian discourse, media, and thereby common sense; they are largely unaware of violent state-repression, and their freedom must be solely understood in the sense of internet rights (though we shall see that even their idea of internet freedom is somewhat skewed). This outlook produces such gems like “Fifty years ago, your freedom fighters laid down their lives for your freedom. Today, your Government has taken away those freedoms.” Or, often, abrupt dosages of Anna-wisdom: “The Government of India is shielding its ministers who are involved in corruption scandals. The Government plans to keep you ignorant about its tricks. They have censored out several websites that share information. Your Ministry of Communications & Information Technology & it’s minister Kapil Sibal is to blame.” Another, now irretrievable, went: “We stand for freedom. We stand for free internet. We stand against corruption.” Secondly, they largely target that audience which finds it comfortable to stick to these presuppositions, and hence AI is also unwilling to engage in questions about freedom and repression by a hypocritic establishment on any serious level. In a way, it helps: it creates the impression that history was fair till now (and hence our quiescence), and now that suddenly things have gone bad, we must speak against them. However, it helps only in adding numbers; it does not help at all in understanding the problem as it stands in its entirety. Anonymous OpIndia (Operation India) fails because it is innocent of the history of state-repression, of what it thinks it addresses.

Consider some other parts of the argument: we'll give AI that they've been consistent about their demand for freedom of expression on the internet. However, what about torrents and other web-hosting rights? “Torrents are widely used to distribute open source and free software such as linux distributions, and many other books and publications that are in the public domain. .. Many small - medium businesses use vimeo to showcase their services and individuals including filmmakers and designers use it to promote their work. .. Most of these sites provide a mechanism for illegal and copyrighted content to be taken down, but the GoI and Indian ISPs decided to bypass this mechanism and block these sites entirely.” AI is unwilling to recognize, or at least discuss, peer-to-peer rights like the ones used in torrents. If I wish to lend or borrow something I possess, and there's already a system existing that facilitates that, why block those systems? This is a question AI refuses to ask; it is a spokesperson for business rights, and seeks to even out the creases that have come into the surface of a cyber-operating business class. How much of the internet freedom argument, then, is to be considered seriously? (Interestingly, many enthusiasts and supporters, in spite of this open stand, express their solidarity on the fb pages, saying they want their movie/game sources back.)

I put an open question on fb (with some substantiation): shouldn't AI be addressing broader questions of state policy, and acknowledge it's historically aggressive role in society? Two replies to it, each interesting in its own right: first read “tl;dr”. Urban Dictionary says this means “too long, didn't read”. The second reply was a URL to the Anonymous India website, with two things written underneath: first, that primary focus was internet freedoms, other things being secondary. Second, “we are Anonymous, we are legion, we are an idea”. It's perplexing, but true: such slogans (if we may allow them this label) have become signatures of hundreds of AI enthusiasts. Two things are interesting to note: there's a very strong narcissistic spin in everything, borrowing from everything popular, from Guy Fawkes imageology to Anna Hazare-like verbage. The romanticist air of the revolutionary leaving for work is hard to miss. Secondly, related to this: the protest is a good occasion to come out in one's latest apparel, a mask and black overalls. The facebook pages of have turned into advertisements of mask-manufacturers (the second most asked question is: has anybody called the media?). Claims to represent “the 99 percent!”, and such paraphernalia seem incompatible, not just by the price (which would seem exhorbitant anyhow to most of the 99 percent), but by the very apparent absurdity and incongruity of the paraphernalia in regard to a protest. But again, this is just another pointer to the scope of OpIndia.

But let's just look at this hooh-hah in light of some other facts: paranoid shreiks in AI pages, highlighted in all sorts of ways (emboldened, reddened, UPPERCASE, etc.) beseeching all anonymous protesters “this is a nonviolent protest”. A little enquiry yeilded insights into what was meant by “non-violent”: the venue for the Mumbai protests was shifted from Gateway of India (the pride of Mumbai) to Azad Maidan (the prison house for all protests in Mumbai). When I asked for reasons on the fb page, I was told due to lack of permissions. I pointed out that one doesn't usually request permission from those one protests against. To this came the reply: the protest is non-violent. I inferred that this is not the non-violence we usually talk about, but is rather more akin to abiding by a benevolent, peace-loving state with it's golden laws. I was also told that a shift of venue doesn't mean anything. My feeling is that this protest has already been marked by state authorities as 'safe'. More facts; invitation procedure: simply sending invites to everybody on your friend-list. However, what goes on the posters, what goes in the slogans has been decided by a small clique of AI operants. The shift of venue itself was simply announced. Then came the calls for 'volunteers'. We keep everything in this paragraph in account, and look at the first claim of Anonymous: “Anonymous is a decentralized network of individuals.” Definitely not; if you're into event-management, you cannot afford to be decentralized. This is, unfortunately, true of AI.

OxbloodRuffin, in an article hosted by Kafila, has made two interesting observations:

Any discussion of Anonymous is problematic. One is never sure which Anonymous is being referenced: the meme, the group as a whole, or an individual operation.” Hence we find these inconsistencies within what seems the same Anonymous umbrella. A question of importance here is the relative role of cyber-freedom in the different societies Anonymous has had operations in.

Anonymous India and Why This Kolaveri di have two things in common. Both have achieved their fame through the Internet. And both are engagingly superficial.” Anonymous India has considered the possibility of a physical protest. However, it has surrendered it, in spirit, from the outset, to state leash. It has refused to delve deeper into state-repression in India while making claims addressing state hypocrisy, taking away of freedoms, etc. It fails to differentiate between a papparazzi event and a protest. However, there is at least one serious positive we must look at: it has managed to mobilize to a sizeable group of people, and to connect to an even bigger mass. Whatever the character of this mobilization, it is an important occasion for discussion, if there be concerted efforts. Unfortunately, efforts are not visible in the e-sphere in which the mobilization has taken place, but there's no need to think 9th June to be the deadline. AI OpIndia not only succeeds in mobilizing, but also in becoming a case to be considered for discussion.

It also holds a special place in the internal affairs of India. It is not a protest, but the image of one. However, much energies, much frustration could possibly find vent here, and there might be satisfaction of feeling one has lodged one's protest, even by help of such an image. The political class are already happy for two related reasons – many believe this is a protest, yet the protesters are already toeing the line. (Look at this for some protest guidelines) It's true that AI poses little danger as such; but still, it makes 'administrative sense' to award cyber concessions as a decoy-victory to ensure that that safety-valve is well-open (though this move also depends on other factors, like the interests involved in those cyber-laws, the relative trade-off between the safety-valve and those interests, the perception of the political class of this issue, etc.). We still await the events of 9th June, 2012, and thereafter, to come to conclusions.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On modern cleanliness

It is perhaps the greatest irony we live in today that we, who strive to keep ourselves clean in every act we perform, leave around us a mess that can be considered nothing if not unclean even in terms set by us. We have created such a divide between our body and our surroundings that we cannot see that what is dirty around us will get inside us forthwith. So immediately, we must see how ironic it is that we find such an evident thing ironic.

Firstly, most of us who consider ourselves the cleanest create the most of the unhygienic conditions we live in. Consider the most elementary measures of modern hygiene: hand sanitizers, soaps, brooms, electrical appliances. Are these not packaged in plastic? Does not the disposal of that plastic become a most serious problem for modern social cleanliness? But 'modern social cleanliness', insofar as it rests in our minds, believes in buying as much of these as it can, and 'disposing of' unnecessary plastic bottles and covers as soon as their purpose is met. As it rests in the lexicon of the state, the plastic ought to be taken to the dumpyard and let be. In the scheme of do-good voluntarists, the solution lies in reusing or recycling plastic. However, they are not willing to admit that 'modern' man would rather 'dispose it of', even after reuse, and that a lot more would be found 'disposed of', blocking drains and other sewer-outlets, than would be found being recycled. Nor would they challenge the blind use of plastic, lest the industry be enraged. Considering modern perspectives on orgainic waste is even more harrowing: the 'modern' individual can vomit anywhere in hordes after booze-parties, and forget about it as if disowning it. The 'modern' man does not seek to know what happens to his shit after he dispels it. Using soap water to clean himself, 'modern' man would then consider that soap water dirty, and what would have been used for other purposes simply as water, otherwise, is now let to flow away in the drains as carrying soap and 'bacteria'. All of the 'modern' elite class' conception of cleanliness consists of 'disposing of' something at a distance decided as agreeably far away. And when they must pass that dump of garbage, each would mutter, or whinny: "How dirty!".

But for every such 'modern' man, there must also be ‘a few good men’. For who picks up the garbage from the carts to the dump-yard? Who mops up our vomit when we have disowned it? Who but the rag-picker can realize the task the the do-gooder when he says, "Recycle, Reuse!"? The 'next-generation' conception of social cleanliness lies in throwing of all garbage at an agreeable distance, but for even this they need somebody to stay regularly with that garbage, to transport it, and hence their picture of man will always stay fragmented and dichotomized. One group of men, for them, are responsible for things which are more important than such petty tasks as pertaining to cleanliness, however important being clean "themselves" might be. Another class of men must take responsibility of throwing garbage at a distance; their justification is that he gets paid for it. Often, when pressed, they would tell you “to each according to his merit”. Because one has taken the pains to study, one deserves a “better” job, or a “job suited to his qualifications”. Because the other did not, he must maintain toilets for two-rupees-a-person. But we know only too well how our money economy facilitates the production of those without schooling, and also of those left with no other alternatives as work but the refuse of all: garbage disposal. Feudal arguments often enter here: "they have been traditionally doing it as their caste-profession, let them do it". Even when the burden of the entire society's cleanliness falls upon the other man, the 'modern' state seeks to extract as much labour from him for as little remuneration as possible. Whence arrives contractualization of social cleanliness workers, and with that "cutting-down" on their gloves, clothes, and other gear required to protect them from dangers and indignity. Modern social cleanliness believes in creating a class of men who will deal with filth at the least possible cost, and in having them banished from the midst of a society that it cleans.

These attitudes enshrined in modern-day social cleanliness resonate with two strongly held socio-psychological prejudices held by men of today. Firstly, that for some men, it is unhealthy to come into contact with dirty things due to low immunity, while some others have developed immunity because of their social class. Secondly, that for some men, their merit makes it below their dignity to touch such base things as organic waste, while others must pay for their laziness and/or ungifted nature by cleaning the mess others make. Concern for health and for dignity mix together and claim justification every time any of us 'modern' men refuse to touch the flush-knob, fearing it has been already touched by dirty hands; notice that our concern for physiological health also means that we distrust those of our own class (however, refusing to consider distrust ourselves even). But more importantly, this also explains how coolly we watch as others clean up after us. The truth is that those classes upon whom we thrust our filth are not blessed with any magical immunity as we like to believe; class-based studies of health indicators have established since long that those whom we abet towards garbage suffer from worse health conditions. Meanwhile, our cleanliness and our affluence brings its own afflictions, trumping any possibility of a one to one correspondence between cleanliness and good health. Secondly, there is no serious evidence to show that some men are innately more gifted or meritorious than others, and hence the only explanation of social inequalities are social mechanisms.

Modern hygiene has been stamped with the inequalities that are part of our political economy, for which function its own particular assumptions. By exposing their irrationality and inhumanity, we move towards challenging that very political economy. But most importantly, social cleanliness offers us a window-view of this political economy right from our homes, and at once we realize that we are part of something big.