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.


3 thoughts on “On Rajagopal

  1. Thank heavens. Reading the first paragraph I thought you were going to agree with him. As I recall, early British arrivals in India wanted to trade. I don’t remember them coming down the gangway and opening fire in all directions – we left that sort of thing to the Portuguese on the west coast.

  2. Hutnyk has responded in his blog to a version of my SSRC blog revised and printed some months later in Social Identities. It felt a bit like getting a long letter in response to a magazine column written some years ago – as if the magazine had somehow reached a distant continent via sailing ship and then wound its way through trackless forests to a literate outpost – since the movement from blog to print back to blog feels like some equivalent of that. And by taking more than a day to respond to a blog I have no doubt confirmed that time is indeed out of joint.
    As it happens my essay was written in an attempt to escape the feeling of being overwhelmed by the events in Mumbai last November, because the copious news and commentary I was getting insulated me from perceiving or comprehending the situation, I felt. I do not disagree with what I wrote then though – hence its re-publication in print, and I’ll get back to that in a moment, and to Hutnyk’s reading of it.
    But since my essay was about violence and terror in South Asia, broadly speaking, and since I have raised the issue of timing, it’s worth pointing out that state violence being carried on at this time in South Asia, by the Sri Lankan government against its Tamil citizens, is the worst of its kind for many years in the region, and exceeds any violence in India over the past decade by an order of magnitude or more. But the Sri Lankan state’s violence, accompanied by Nazi-style internment camps where Tamil civilians in the region are confined and are dying, under suspicion of sympathizing with the Tigers, has been described by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Rajapaksa as representing an “unprecedented humanitarian initiative” – and has drawn virtually no criticism in the western media. This surely offers one more reflection of an emerging world order where a surfeit of information and of empathy can co-exist with a blindness towards horrifying levels of atrocity. Such atrocity can only persist for political reasons we aren’t paying attention to, such as tacit U.S. sanction for the conversion of Sri Lanka into a Burmese-style ethno-military dictatorship. Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Tigers (who had previously been aided by India) was enabled with arms from Pakistan and China. The Sri Lankan regime provides regional back-up for the U.S.’s “war on terror,” as does India today, and Rajapaksa refers to India as Sri Lanka’s “big brother,” tongue in cheek no doubt, but signaling how regional power alignments stand. Collective relief that the Tigers’ incarnadine ferocity is at an end has been the main note of public response, ignoring the Sri Lankan state’s violations of international law and the cold calculations of realpolitik. The geopolitical space called South Asia is being reconfigured, from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, with locality and region becoming more specific and distinct even as they are more deeply subject to globalizing forces. Hardt and Negri’s arguments (indicated by Hutnyk) including their notion of deterritorialized politics and its counterpoint in a kind of coagulating/shifting multitude doesn’t do justice to the very specific manner in which the area is being reconfigured.
    Now to the some of the specific – and thought-provoking- points Hutnyk raises. The resemblance I drew between East India Company adventurers and latter-day terrorists in Mumbai was an analogy, not an identity. Violence and illegality are used to establish institutions that thereafter claim legitimacy; state form is not fixed, nor is the law. The profuse invocation of “non-state actors” by governments to explain why they must respond in kind, points to a mutation of state power that is in some respects familiar from before. Obviously this is not a reversal of history back to the EIC, however. In an era of emergent state formation, “non-state actors” conjugate very differently today, with terrorism offering a cover for more coercive and yet more diffuse forms of sovereignty take shape. The example of Sri Lanka cautions us not to fasten onto the devolution of state power onto private actors as something invariant.
    Modern sovereignty, as we hitherto understood it, took its distinctive form by monopolizing the legitimate means of violence, shielding state violence from public view, and/or redefining such violence as pedagogical rather than merely punitive. The ongoing privatization of the state combined with the publicization of violence, parallels the growth of global media corporations and worldwide audiences alongside softening national boundaries and hardening cultural categories. Cultural particularism is produced alongside globality, while public violence draws the line between those it protects and those it polices. Where the state’s monopoly over legitimate violence is shared with non-state agents, both the norms of perception and the character of state power undergo fundamental transformations that we need to try and understand. To say “Empire” gives it a name, but mere repetition of the name is mystifying, just as the curious personalization of empire through “Hillary” (and why not Barack?) illuminates very little. Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” is powerful in its insistence in arguing for the deterritorialization and renewal of older political forms, but offers little by way of negotiating the cultural particularisms through which sovereignty is refashioned. If political power increasingly depends on control over appearance, as Agamben has remarked, rather than on control over the means of violence, how publicity actually stages and thereby re-makes politics is something we need to figure out; I’m not sure we have readily available accounts that do the work for us.

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