The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

The Gazed and the Vulnerable

By Heba Ahmed 

Now that the events that transpired at JNU on 9 February, 2016, are behind us, and the pale of punitive action against students has been withdrawn, I reminisce those days of fear and dread that had descended upon us, seemingly out of nowhere.

Diary entry: 18 February, 2016 

The other night, a news article had a striking bit of information – that there is a website which has prepared a ‘list’ of about twenty anti-nationals of JNU. I searched for this particular site and hit upon ‘The Lot Pot: Nationalism Served With Fun’. I found the link to ‘Know the Traitor JNU students who wants to bleed India Expose Them’ (sic) and was shocked and unnerved to find my own name there. The link of my Facebook profile was given, furnished with my ‘profile photo’ and my cover photo, which was a recent wedding close-up with my sister and mother. Three smiling faces of Muslim women assembled for the gaze of the patriotic thug. So this is what the ‘fun’ element of nationalism does – it instills a rabid hatred, an irresponsible prejudice towards complete strangers – whose virtual ‘identities’ can be compiled into a hate list, circulated on social media to evince a potent mix of voyeurism and witch-hunting.

I am no stranger to the discomforts of being the ‘gazed’. My earliest memories of ‘Muslimness’ as a distinct marker of corporeality hark back to school days. Being a teacher herself, my mother was unable to take my sister and me back home from school every day. This made special the few days when she was able to visit – mostly on ‘parent-teacher’ meeting and prize distribution days. Ammi would come in a burqa and on entering the school premises, she would look for a secluded spot to take off her burqa, thus transitioning from a ‘conservative’ to a ‘secular-progressive’ woman. I undertook the same ritual when I attained puberty and was required by family custom to wear a salwar and a dupatta for the walk to school. I still remember those few tense moments of ‘transition’ from communitarian hijab to secular uniform and the dread of being caught by schoolmates in the act of transition. The ignominy of my adolescent embarrassment continued for about five years, when in high school, the prospectus carried prohibitory orders against anyone who came to school wearing “a salwar under the skirt and a scarf over the shirt”. The secular gaze had triumphed and my 17-year-old self was relieved. I was not politically mature enough then to parse my experience theoretically.

The French Revolution had a uniquely spectacular way to do away with the ‘Enemies of the Revolution’. The guillotine was very effective in creating mass spectacle. It was not enough to behead the Enemy; the Enemy had to be trussed up, made to face the public gaze, have his crimes read out in detail before being guillotined. Both the gazer and the gazed were significant. The gazer – the public – had to witness the ignominy of the gazed. The guillotine perfected the dichotomy between the gazing Self and the gazed Other. To be hanged in full view of thousands amplifies the grounds for guilt and makes the hangman a hero. To be publically guillotined is to irretrievably lose the dignity of death, to forego the respect reserved for the bodies of the deceased.

The gazing public of 18th century France is now an anachronism. Public spaces of the city are no longer needed to execute a mass hanging and create a gory spectacle. In the 21st century, cellphones, laptop screens, and the plethora of telecom services serve in good stead. The enemies of today are singled out for public gaze – but the gazers need not assemble collectively to gaze at the damned together. Instead, images of the Enemy are constantly circulated, among an imagined community of nation-lovers. You may receive it as a banal WhatsApp message on your cellphone. A permanent, continuous stream of images of the Enemy. A hatred which is more commonplace and hence more dangerous.

Today, two women who live in neighbouring rooms of my hostel knocked on my door. I had never spoken to them before. They came to inform me about that list. I told them that I am already aware of it. It’s impossible to discern what emotion had impelled them to approach me. Suspicion? Sympathy? Curiosity? And I know that by raising these questions I am implicating myself in the same doubts vis-a-vis them. Do I look upon them with suspicion, too? Suspicion is vile; it implicates everyone who descends upon its trail.

There are friends and well-wishers who have offered very welcome words of support and caution. One of them remarked how unmoved I am. I replied that the only thing which can convince me of my ‘safety’ is the sobering knowledge that there are students who are more vulnerable than me. Students with recognisably Muslim names like Umar. Umar, whose face has apparently been put up on public notices for any wannabe investigator on the lookout for a terrorist. And this acknowledgement – that I am protected by the greater vicimisation of another – puts me in a very dishonest position. I am reminded of Niemoller’s words. When the fascists come for you, your visceral fear seeks out its own buffer. How many buffers stand between them and the last woman/man?

I have been advised by friends to deactivate my Facebook profile, to lie low on campus, to keep my voice muted. I miss the old days in JNU: going for nocturnal walks, knowing that this is an oasis of safety; working on my dissertaion, adding to the levels of research that this university is famous for; staying out till late in the dark, in the comforting belief that no flaming trishul can reach this place.

Today, we are all in a perpetual state of alarm. For ourselves. For friends and allies and comrades-in-arms. For those with whom we braved water cannons, police batons and detentions, and injuries during the Justice for Rohith Vemula protest marches. Today we are all anti-nationals. Enemies of the state, ready for the guillotine.

Heba Ahmed
is an M. Phil. Research Scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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