The Creating Publics-Creating Democracies workshop ( see this week’s theme) caught my attention immediately because ‘public’ and ‘democracy’ figured as two separate terms. In most approaches to the public sphere, democracy is still considered somewhat intrinsic. The terminological dissociation, however, connects to thoughts that have occupied me ever since the beginning of my fieldwork on the transformation of the Indian television landscape a decade ago, which made it obvious that the public need not be at all democratic in a constitutionally democratic state.
Interestingly, the convenors actually chose to open the workshop with a session on ‘troubling publics’. It seems that the observation that the public has ceased to be, if it ever was, a reliable signifier of democracy, is of wider interest.
The event that had triggered my thoughts in this direction was the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the western Indian State of Gujarat. This event was in many ways very particular, yet has meanwhile confirmed a trend in the spread and “export” of democracy, the medialisation of societies and the naturalisation of Islamophobia. Much has been written about this pogrom from a local, activist stance. Accounts usually start the same way: on February 27, a train carrying hundreds of Hindu nationalist activists (some say ‘pilgrims’ – which is where the controversy starts) caught fire in the town of Godhra, Gujarat, burning 59 of them to death. The minority Muslim community was immediately held collectively responsible for this “terrorist attack” (which is more likely to have been an accident, though this option was rapidly ruled out of account).
Within 24 hours, a pogrom against the Gujarati Muslims was unleashed that has no parallel in India’s post-Independence history in terms of the determination to kill, the organisation of the action, and the ideological and structural backing through the Gujarat State government, represented, until today, by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP – Indian People’s Party). More than 2000 Muslims were slaughtered, more than 200,000 permanently displaced (to make way for the creation of ‘pure’ Hindu neighbourhoods).
What has so far not been subject either to debate or analysis, however, is one other dimension to this violence. From what can be made out from similar occurrences, it was the first, and to date the only, state-sponsored pogrom against a part of the domestic population on a global scale that was broadcast live, 24x7, over several weeks to national audiences by uncensored, commercially competing TV stations from the same country.
This means that the pogrom was not only publicly visible for the local population – as had always been the case with earlier instances of anti-minority violence – but for everybody who could find a screen to watch it on, amidst soap operas, game shows and Bollywood movies, throughout the whole of India. This already implies that the majority of the public did not mainly react with shock and condemnation to the pogrom - heavily criticised as it was for its violence by some of these TV stations. Had they done so, the violence might well have stopped earlier, and the ‘world public’ would have heard more about it. As it was, the overwhelming reaction, if not of indifference, was denial or even open approval and a condemnation not of the violence but of the reporting of the violence.
Reports pointing to Hindus as the aggressors and to the Gujarat government as actively supportive were rejected, if not verbally attacked, often in the online commentary sections of TV channels or newspapers, as exaggerated and sensationalist in their form and as pro-Muslim and therefore biased, pro-“terrorist” and anti-Hindu, elitist, anti-people and anti-“Gujarat” in their contents.
The broadcasting of the crime as much as the reaction of its audiences fundamentally disrupted the link between public and democracy as it is routinely invoked. In itself, the reporting of the anti-minority killings was obviously as democratic in nature as was criticism of the media for reporting the violence in an “exaggerated”, “biased” and “sensationalist” manner. Sustaining both of these postures at the same time, however, under the given conditions, saw them mutually exclude each other in a way that could only work against democracy. What were these conditions?
The Gujarat pogrom was the first major episode of communal violence (in the long history of violence between religious communities in India, particularly the post-Independence majority Hindu and the minority Muslim community) to take place after the neoliberalisation of the media landscape and particularly, television. Until 1991, the reporting of communal violence had, in permanent violation of India’s democratic constitution, been censored “for the good of the people”. This was the case both in the approach adopted by the single state-owned TV broadcaster, and the result of pretty effective self-censorship in private newspapers. The official argument was that watching riots would instigate riots amongst a population never deemed quite “developed”, i.e. secular, democratic and civilised enough. Basically, this premise served to conceal the Indian state’s passive or active involvement in the violence and the successive transformation of riots into ever more organised anti-Muslim massacres, usually on the pretext of “self-defence” against “Muslim aggression” (especially after the growing public influence and electoral successes of Hindu nationalism from the 1980s onwards).
When post-censorship television began reporting from Gujarat’s killing fields it thus instinctively operated as an enlightenment intervention on the part of the media, acting as though it was opening up the atrocities of a non-democratic, if not wholly totalitarian regime “to the light” and to “the eye of the public” and making them accessible and assessable to all. In order to make killing public, however, it has to have been previously hidden.
Classic totalitarian regimes took considerable care, even in the case of legalised state-induced crime - think of the officially so-named ‘Night and Fog’-edict of the German Nazis – to keep their crimes secret, elevating the secret police and the secret service key institutions within the regime. The publication of the crime in these cases usually indicated the imminent demise of the guilty regime, if it did not occur only after its downfall. This duly elicited a secondary response, shock and condemnation amongst people abroad as well as in the ‘host’ country. At this point the secrecy of the crime, while it is the precondition for the absence of a public, allows for, and indeed supports, the claim that they did not know what had taken place (so that it remains quite unclear if the subsequent condemnation is provoked by the actual crime, by the fact of having been kept “in the dark”, or by the reflex involved in denying one’s own complicity). In the classic scenario, a third factor is that the media that makes the crime public is usually not from the same country. The secrecy of the crime is contingent on a strict censorship of the local/national media, and even if killings are public, this is generally done in order to force both the national media and the population into fearful compliance. Uncovering the crime itself is hence often a risky and lengthy process, with bits and pieces fed to the public sometimes over decades and shifting in time from journalists to scientists, judiciaries and international human rights organisations.
None of these conventional factors applied in the case of the Gujarat pogrom, even though journalists from Delhi gave the impression they were reporting the atrocity from another country (Gujarat). However, a pogrom is, in contrast to secret executions for instance, anyway always semi-public, in as much as it often involves parts of the local population. As such it was nothing new to India and had been a means of making politics for some time (particularly in the normalising of anti-Muslim prejudices). That this pogrom entered the terrain of genocide, in terms of the state-orchestrated determination to kill as many of a different group as possible, was a small qualitative shift in conduct that, since this breaching of limits was denied to have taken place, was hardly striking. On the other hand, the crime became completely public in the first place precisely because an anti-democratic legal practise, media censorship, had collapsed, not least through the illegal entry of transnational media companies, creating a burgeoning media landscape as a result. The democratised media that strove to enlighten the public about the horrors committed thus met with a public that not only thought that it already knew what was happening, but that was inevitably made part of the event through the very ongoing competitive live coverage of the same media.
The public constituted itself in this process by enunciating its habitual mistrust against media messages from “elite people” (journalists) who were claiming definitional authority, as much as it did by issuing fresh calls for freedom of speech (against Muslims) together with the overt criticism of a liberal(ised) media, thereby vindicating the Hindu nationalists in their rejection of the westernised developmental state.
Critical media were virtually robbed of their self-appointed investigative and enlightening intention. As long as they focused on the crime committed, there was no way for them to avoid becoming the advertisers of what they wanted to expose (which is one reason why the reporting on Gujarat ceased rather quickly altogether). Precisely because it was public, the crime became non-publishable as a crime. The Indian public, meanwhile, fundamentally, and very much behind the scenes, changed its role. While it had for long been prevented from being the power that, in Habermasian terms, monitors public authority through public opinion, it now made itself indispensible in preventing the disclosure of the authority’s guilt which could have led to allegations of individual responsibility.
The Gujarat pogrom illustrates why we cling so fiercely to the idea of the democratic public – namely because it provides us with a comfortable dichotomy between good and evil, freedom and power, public and authority. At the same time, an event such as the Gujarat pogrom forces us – scholars, journalists, members of different publics - to ask how far we, against growing empirical evidence, also cling to the idea of conventional anti-democratic measures, such as censorship, and totalitarian logics in “other countries”, in terms of ruthless dictators who suppress their people, for the sake of keeping up the democratic public in our imagination (and at the risk of becoming inadvertently complicit in its absence). We like to assume that as soon as there is no censorship and no identifiable dictator, public(-ness) equals democracy (which explains why the Gujarat pogrom is hardly known outside India and has done so little to tarnish India’s popular image as the world’s largest democracy). The public, however, is also a determining agent in post- or non-dictatorial anti-democracy, not only in “other” (read non-western) countries but on a global level, and very much in the west itself.
In the case of India, groups of activists and their sympathisers – no longer very reliably supported by mainstream commercial media, who have learned not to annoy the public if they wish to retain their advertising revenues – have understood that the only way to act democratically is against the existing public, by relentlessly working to prove the guilt of the Gujarat government (and there are some successes). They, too, rely on the idea of a democratic public. They know, however, that this cannot be assumed, but that it is the public itself that will ultimately decide how democratic India will be.
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