Mobpublic vs. Counterpublic in Kerala
[with inputs from Baiju John]
Recent events in Kerala convince me that we need to think more closely about the ways in which our political public life is being slowly overwhelmed by something that is profoundly anti-public but somehow manages to resemble it — I’m tempted to call it the Mobpublic. I’m of course not referring to formal politics, where political parties and powerful communities continue to squabble without any serious difference in their programmes. Very little of either the political or the public survives in them; all one hears for most of the time are the tales of internal squabbling which is neither political (yes, despite all of V S Achuthanandan’s efforts to coopt oppositional civil social struggles) nor public. Perhaps the decline of the political is a condition for the rise of the mobpublic.
By ‘mobpublic’ I’m referring to a more generalized, relatively recent phenomenon, which is distinctly different from the donkeypublic that figured in the bitter reprimand of democracy voiced by the radicals of the earlier century : pothujanam kazhutha — the public that continues to meekly and silently function, work, obey, in the face of heightening burdens and unmitigated abuse. What I want to argue is that familiar terms like ‘moral policing’ or ‘fascist’ are insufficient to describe the full force of this phenomenon. In fact what spurs me to think further is the fact that many who would openly condemn the violence inflicted by the mobpublic do not however condemn the mobpublic itself. I do feel that those of us who would want to condemn it unequivocally should confront it, first, by naming it in a way that will lay bare its pervasive presence that effaces the political public and usurps its place. It is true, for instance, that much of the mobpublic is clearly fascist, yet that is too general a characterization. We also need to think of it more carefully — to make sense of how it enables different kinds of moral policing which may seem quite unconnected at first glance. I’m merely thinking aloud here — my ideas are not clear yet, and I am hoping that they will be clarified through wider discussion.
The mobpublic is falsely but readily identified with the public because it is often found to be coalescing precisely around issues that appear to be of a non-private nature.In the recent cases here of lynching (of a young man suspected of having an affair with a married woman) and harassment by the mobpublic (of a young woman worker who was attacked as a ‘loose woman’ because she traveled with a male friend on his motorbike at night) the incidents were largely unrelated to the immediate families and lives of those who formed the mobpublic and carried out the attacks. Or, in recent attacks against particular groups of Muslims and Dalits, especially the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM), those who implicitly justify the attackers swear about their concern about ‘public’ well-being and peace. However, the mob in mobpublic surfaces precisely in that these interventions are not directed towards transforming acts and practices of individuals or groups into issues for public debate; rather, they are geared towards judging individuals and groups in terms of dominant, accepted codes of behaviour and forcing them to conform. In other words, they are against, often in a violent way that involves physical coercion: (a) attempts by individuals to make unconventional choices about their private lives, and (b) attempts by oppressed groups to form counterpublics which have the potential to shape resistant subjectivities. In other words, they are against freedom in two very different, even opposed, senses: it is against freedom as in the negative conception of liberty, as absence of constraint, but also intolerant of freedom as understood in the Arendtian sense: as a potential to be realized through entry into the political public. However, the mobpublic does not really concretise into any solid fascist community; rather it emerges and disappears at particular moments,surging up destructively from time to time, as if it were the silent ground upon which all of Malayalee society was built. This makes it very hard to pin down the mobpublic and hold it culpable — after each case, the outrage of those who empathize with the wounded, usually inhabitants of smaller counterpublics — dissipates when individuals responsible for the specific acts of violence are arrested.
Two features of the mobpublic may be worth thinking about: one, it is the child of an elitist culture where state protectionism, rather than building the dignity and self-sufficiency of oppressed groups, continues to be held up as the path towards public well-being. In this reckoning, the state protects those who conform to dominant mores, including dominant gender and sexual norms. Thus in order to receive justice and one’s rightful access to state welfare, one must be able to prove that one’s conformity — that one is politically neutral or acceptable, that one is committed to heteronormativity.And the mobpublic actually disciplines members of oppressed groups even though others may be injured in the process. For instance, in the recent case of the lynching of the young man in the Kozhikode district of Kerala, while it is he who suffered direct, physical violence, the woman who he allegedly visited is perhaps the living victim of ‘protection’, who may indeed have faced a similar fate had they been spotted together. One cannot but recall Carole Pateman’s notion of the ‘fraternal social contract’ in which the father-king is eliminated through parricide and the liberty of the sons is assured through their joint control over women: which therefore frowns against any man who tries to breach the fraternal contract through desiring any woman who might, within these terms, ‘belong’ to another man.
It is common wisdom in Kerala (and the surest evidence for the failure of feminism here to respond to the specific sort of patriarchy regnant in contemporary Kerala) that women need to be protected constantly from threats of sexual violence and/or contamination more than they need to exercise their rights as full citizens; it is also accepted that the law in the form of ‘guardian angelic moral police’ cannot reach everywhere. Therefore the intervention of the mobpublic appears inevitable. Many of those who may condemn the violence that the mobpublic inflicts on its victims would say so, and in no whispering terms. One cannot help noticing that this is exactly what makes the mobpublic an anti-public. For the mobpublic provides no forum on which individuals may express their difference; it, rather, shoves back the oppressed into the dehumanizing and indignified state of conformity from which they struggle to escape. Indeed, the DHRM’s efforts to both make their presence felt in Kerala’s public and to create their own counterpublic may well be described in terms of Hannah Arendt’s notion of action the object of which is disclosure of the uniqueness, the difference, of the self through action. I do believe that their attempts to shape a new resistant dalit subject are nothing less than Arendtian action by which they seek to shake off images of dalits as objects of pity and sympathy, as passive recipients of state welfare, as eternal mired in dehumanizing labour. It is precisely this potential of this emergent dalit counterpublic that the mobpublic seeks to obliterate.
Secondly, the mobpublic is functional to the disciplinary imperatives of the dominant and spread over a range of institutions, from schools, to community and religious organizations. It is not surprising therefore that it possesses an amazing flexibility that the blundering, slow, bureaucratic state agencies who are committed with the task of defending human rights can hardly hope to match. The mobpublic may indeed be composed of members and supporters of political parties, ranging from the CPM to the Siva Sena, but it is fluid enough to include others, cutting across party-political and even community differences (especially when it is the dalit politics of the DHRM that is being violently opposed). It also takes an amazing number of shapes, which ought to be documented carefully. Recently, we have seen the easy conflation of the mobpublic with the public (pothujanam) and local folk (naatukaar). In an earlier post on Kafila about the continuing struggles of the DHRM, I had observed how they were effectively excluded from the ‘local folk’ in the press reports of violence against them. The DHRM continue to face massive violence on the one hand, and equally massive efforts to efface them from the public. The easy conflation of the mobpublic with the ‘general public’ now happens with encouragement from the highest echelons of power. Just a few days ago, a DHRM campaign which focuses on dalit colonies, called the ‘Manushya Nirmithi Yatra’led by the well-known dalit woman leader Seleena Prakkanam from Venganoor, the historic site of the anti-caste struggles led by Ayyan Kali in the early 20th century, to Thrissur, was refused official permission to enter the Varkala Police Circle by the District Collector of Thiruvananthapuram on 15 November 2011 (S11. 79810/11.It brands the DHRM as already guilty of a much-publicized murder in which their activists were allegedly involved, but in which the police have not been able to make available any substantial evidence. More importantly, it claims that ‘contention exist between DHRM activists/sympathizers and general public (italics mine) of differing political affinities.’ This ‘general public’ is reaffirmed to be composed of different elements in the very next paragraph where it is mentioned that there is considerable opposition to the DHRM among ‘the public of differing political and religious affinities of’ various places in the area. However it is indeed a ‘public’ into which the DHRM has no entry, to which it will be permanently posed against. Further, this ‘public’ seems to come together only, and only, in opposition to the DHRM — I read this as the surest sign of the surfacing of the mobpublic. If in the Kozhikode lynching case, the government has declared itself to be committed to arrest the murderers, the instruments of the mobpublic, in this case, the mobpublic emerges triumphant, the government — and indeed the mainstream press which has seriously downplayed the violent disruption of the manushya nirmithi yatra in which six DHRM activists have suffered injuries — now serving as its arms. The essential similarity of the mobpublic’s operations is easy to miss or conveniently ignored; I think it should not be carefully thought through, and not dismissed too quickly. But the difference in the government’s response is also interesting. The state seems somewhat more agreeable towards defending individual liberty as the freedom of individuals from constraint, as is evident in its response not just to the murder of the young man at Kozhikode but also earlier cases. But when confronted with dalit assertion that seeks freedom in nothing less than a full and confident entry into the political public, it seems to be actually holding hands with the mobpublic!
For those who belong to the marginalized and abjected groups who struggle for space and freedom in Kerala, the mobpublic is no doubt the single largest threat. I do believe that it can be dealt with only though even bolder bids for freedom, as unabashed as those of the DHRM. But perhaps those of us who share elite locations but feel discomfited with the privilieges of caste, class, and gender ought to give DHRM their due — to admit the fact that it is they, more than anybody else, who have stripped away all the veils of ‘Kerala Model’ glory and revealed the ugly face of the mobpublic beneath. I think that admission is still forthcoming. However, this admission would be important for us, mostly. As for the DHRM activists, I do think they are least bothered about whether we admit this or not. In fact the cool determination with which they face assault after assault and the totally relaxed manner in which they respond to the apathy of activists and intellectuals to their plight, reminds me, strangely enough, of a little poem by Victor Hugo that I read long back:
Be like the bird, who,
Resting in his flight
On a twig too slight,
Feels it bend beneath him,
Knowing he has wings.