Bare Lives: On the Political Redundancy and the Social Choice of #MainBhiChowkidar
By Soma Mandal
A national paroxysm has gripped the Indian citizens in the sudden wake of a soft but sharp surgical nationalism, 72 years after Independence. In the current socio-political milieu, the constitutional rights of individuals, founded upon a new class of precariat, characterize contemporary life. Giorgio Agamben qualified bare life as the process by which the already bleak and naked future of humanity is further stripped off of social security. Judith Butler calls this process invisibilisation of human life and terrible precarity, since any human being whose ‘social performance’ does not put them under state supervision and care-giving scheme gets invisibilised as a citizen and is therefore deprived of his/her social rights. By denying them their rights, the state further invisibilises even the process of invisibilisation and violates natural and fundamental rights of citizens. The Arendtian explanation for state power equivocating as social welfare-oriented schemes is a disguised form of violence that derives its organizational strength from multiple forms of power as she says, “Power cannot remain in power unless it multiplies itself.” The current discourse of violence, hatred, and branding of socio-cultural labels finds its serpentine way through to the Indian political system giving us a panoramic sketch of Indian democracy and its present state-of-affairs.
On the Political Legitimacy of #MainBhiChowkidar and Why We Need to Reject It
Recently, the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, came out with the #MainBhiChowkidar (Me too watchman) campaign in response to the opposition’s jibe, “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (The watchman is a thief). The campaign urges all Indians to be ‘chowkidars’ in the 21st century and has become a manifesto and global charter of social development and democratic deliberation of justice, equality, and fraternity across twitter platforms and social media accounts. After the very recent televised footage of Mr. Modi washing the feet of safai karmacharis, the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign is an attempt to boost the morale of the election-bound BJP.
The rationale behind such public acts does not follow logical coherence and complementary action which the government majestically evades by the sheer rhetorical art of manipulation and gerrymandering bombastic propaganda. Indeed, the question that comes to one’s mind is the necessity of such a campaign. How do the public locate the authenticity of such performative events and efforts on the part of the government? One cannot but notice that such public displays of social commitment and objectification of politics comes at a time when the elections are just around the corner. Such displays and campaigns make us question the actual records, effectiveness, implementation of governmental schemes meant to eradicate inequality and discrimination in India.
The Chowkidar Campaign is an exercise of a display without understanding the plight of the chowkidar community in the social matrix of India. Mr. Modi’s strong resolution of identifying himself with chowkidars and requesting all the people to call themselves chowkidars stereotype them by objectifying their role as something beneficial and important to the nation. However, it also underplays their inhuman treatment at the hands of the rich bourgeois and private institutions. The term ‘chowkidar’ is not a marker of social respect because of its positionality in the lower orders of job profiling. As employment surveys indicate, it is mostly the uneducated, poor, rural, Dalit, OBC, minorities, the Gorkha community, and people from the lower classes who become chowkidars in metropolitan cities and towns. Given the unemployment situation, people literally compete fiercely even for these posts. This shows the precarity of the employment situation and deplorable condition of the chowkidars who have to fight for such menial jobs. Recently the security officers in Margherita, with the collective support of Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS) in upper Tinsukia, Assam, held protests for their sudden termination from the office of Coal India Limited. Their demands for regularization of jobs, job security, and minimum wage remain unaddressed by the government.
The highly publicized campaign does not have any connection with the reality of chowkidars and is simply a publicity stunt on social media platforms, a platform that the elites use for interaction, communication, and less as a space for awareness. The masses that are less educated use social media as a means of social escape from the dredges of their immediate reality. The post-liberal consumer society manufactures such demands for leisure through virtual escape routes, which Herbert Marcuse mentions in his book, One Dimensional Man (1964), as repressive de-sublimation. This devolution of conscious awareness and the pragmatic collapse of non-performance in the public sphere is the basis for his social critique of global consumerism and capitalist societies. The political energy of the working masses, especially the role of watchmen, is a category of non-productive labor power and a type of labor service that chiefly caters to the urban rich.
Maintaining mental records of intruders, 24/7 observation, and mapping of unknown persons require mental dexterity. The vigilant process requires one to remain awake and alert, thereby depriving the chowkidar of his rest. This mentally exhaustive profession is at once de-humanizing, demoralizing, and destructive to the physical health and well-being of chowkidars. Along with physical degeneration and low wage, the watchmen faces humiliation and insult at the hands of the affluent. Their salutation to the masters and owners deepens the class divide with more intensity and power. The skewed power relations lead them to marginalization as they are often accused of misbehavior unnecessarily. Their mistreatment at the hands of their owners, managers and middlemen who recruit them is an altogether different story. The managers extort money and provide them employment, but the caution deposit does not ensure insurance and any security to their life. The private security guards also face death threats and attack from unknown assailants and they are often beaten to death, run over, and are easy to stab, kill or murder. The National Census of India and the Death Statistics Bureau report no statistical data regarding the number of deaths of watchmen and the circumstances responsible for their death. Officially they are not even recognized as employed and therefore they are not provided with any entitlement after death.
The Social Question of Choice/Necessity
Article 21 provides for constitutional right to life and human dignity, but the profession of a chowkidar hardly resembles this right to a dignified life. The constitutional prerogative in ensuring the dignity of individuals is sine qua non, irrespective of community or class. However, social justice hardly becomes a part of the agenda of the government. The dignity of labour is further undermined when the BJP MP Subramanian Swamy says, “I cannot be a chowkidar because I am a Brahmin.” This shows how casteist the Indian society is and how Swamy perpetuates caste and class system being an upper caste male.
As Modi calls himself and his ministers ‘chowkidars’, the term does not imply the real chowkidar but a metaphorical Chowkidar or a Parliamentary Chowkidar/Watchdog of the nation. As a chowkidar, his mission of removing black money ironically put the nation in long queues and undue difficulty. This current campaign too doesn’t seem to offer any benefit to the real chowkidars. There isn’t any hike in their income or incentives that the government is planning to offer them. Following the campaign and the promotional offers of #MaiBhiChowkidar songs, ringtones, and merchandise, the campaign appears to promote salesmanship and marketing management for the BJP rather than public good.
Soma Mandal is a former guest faculty member in the Department of English at Durgapur Women’s College, West Bengal, India. She is interested in Dalit Literature, Women’s Studies and literature from the margins. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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