The Barbaric Other

Now that the Indian brouhaha over the recent spurt of violence along the Line of Control appears to have quieted, it is time to take stock of what it was about. Statement after statement, television debate after television debate, while the Indian media, the army, and the government (in that specific order) raised the pitch of war, the Pakistani media and their commentariat was calm, and expectedly so. The latter have in recent years cozied up to India, and spent more effort convincing the Pakistani middle class that the bigger threat to their state are the multitude of insurgencies going on in Pakistan. Both the Indian and the Pakistani state intellectuals, who are regular fixtures on news shows, are ready warmongers when called upon to perform that role, but the Pakistani side is now more interested in waging war on their own dispossessed. That is why many of their Pakistani counterparts appeared a bit heartbroken that underneath the elite-to-elite fostered bonhomie, which comes packaged as CBMs, Track II, and aman ki asha, the Indian commentators were still seething with primordial hatreds. Within a matter of days, CBMs had turned into ICBMs of rage reducing aman ki asha (hope of peace) to an aman ka tamasha (a vulgar spectacle of what was thought to be ‘peace’).

Several well-disposed Pakistani and Indian writers tried to reason how an incident on LoC, by no means so unusual, could be twisted into a potent issue, bringing the two countries toward a renewed confrontation. Some explained that because the election seasons in India and Pakistan are heating up, the politicians are trying hard to distract their respective peoples’ attention from the socio-economic problems that bedevil these two states—(and, yes, when it comes to real socio-economic questions there is a Pak-Ind, however hard Indians may try to ‘delink’). Others provided a more careful sequence of the events as they took place, implicating Indian actions on LoC, especially the building of fortifications that violated a 2003 ceasefire agreement, as having precipitated the crisis. These are parts of the larger truth, but only skim the surface of deeper factors that lie behind the renewed diatribes.

Indian media, on their part, insisted that it was not so much the regular violence (even though continuous references were made to supposed infractions on LoC from the Pakistani side) but the nature of this particular violence—the beheading of an Indian soldier—that called for a ‘commensurate’ response: war. This last explanation is actually a more direct reason for why war fever rose in Indian television studios. The ‘outrage’ over the supposed beheading was not too affected. At least, the outrage was not a conscious pretense. But outrage doesn’t always spring from genuine ethical considerations; affects are historically constructed. Underneath the outrage, the Indian pro-revenge commentators were enacting an old colonial drama, whose characters have been switching places in recent times, but whose plot essentially remains the same. Historical amnesia makes possible its continued reenactments.

I am not going to go into details of what took place on LoC on that particular day, or before and after that ‘event’. Frankly, neither do I know the facts, nor do ordinary Kashmiris have the means or access to know the details of all such events that take place on their land. Nevertheless, the actual facts don’t always matter when one tries to understand how discourses around certain types of facts develop. Beheading is not so much a horrendous fact; it is a horrendous type of fact. It is a signature of difference. One could ask, in modern wars, where multi-ton bombs and powerful ammunitions evaporate human bodies, why is beheading still outrageous and incomprehensible? Why do bodies blown to smithereens by drone-fired missiles or bunker-buster bombs, in contrast, only produce awe and, in certain perverse military-speak, innovational analysis—that revels in the efficiency of the modern means of dispensing death? Cruelty for cruelty, the two, the intimate beheading and the remote-button controlled death, are not so different, but they produce highly disproportionate levels of modern horror—a disproportion that becomes even more pronounced given the much higher scale of destruction caused by the remote-controlled bombs. Why?

A relation of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, putative civilization versus barbarism, modern versus medieval, governs the logic behind this disproportion in horror. The violence of the Other is seen as arbitrary, spontaneous, impulsive, measureless, and therefore horrific, which needs to be eliminated with whichever means necessary, or at least tightly controlled. Historically the armed revolts of the slaves, the colonized, and the subaltern have been read as signs of their nonhumanity, which gives the State license to eliminate the former remorselessly and without any moral compunction. The violence of the masters, the colonizer, and the ruling class, on the other hand, is seen as part of the civilized code of punishment and discipline, a violence that is measured, and which restrains itself from within. Colonial powers used to (and still do, if one pays close attention to the languages justifying military interventions) rationalize their rule and conquest based on their self-perception as harbingers of civilization, and conquest as way to bring their unique values to the primitives, the heathens and the barbarians. It is a different matter that royal beheadings and guillotine lie at the foundation of the European events that are seen as the sources of modernity. Nevertheless, the colonial drama was a strange one in which century after century the ‘civilized’ always remained the same (the West) but each new era saw a new primitive, a new heathen, a new barbarian ready to be civilized.

What was interesting, then, when Parvez Musharraf, in a recent televised debate on an Indian news-channel, inadvertently came close to identifying this same relation, telling the program host that Indians were presenting Pakistanis as barbaric? He seemed almost surprised by his own discovery, as if he had unintentionally hit upon a weird truth; he couldn’t believe Indians would think of Pakistanis as barbaric. Clearly, the way Indian commentators spoke about the ‘beheading’ did reflect a self-perception of being civilized. They saw LoC not as a border between two states, but a frontier between civilization and barbarism. And to secure the frontier, the two options were regularly presented: either fortify ‘the wall’ and break off of all contact (the Great Wall of China or the Iron Curtain come to mind as analogies), or conduct limited incursions to ‘teach them a lesson’ (ala Gaza). This self-perception among the partially-anglicized middle class Indians has in recent times been reinforced by effusive Western gestures, as India readily offers itself as a junior defender of Western military and economic interests in the region. While the Pakistani state plays no different role for the West, Pakistani relationship with the US is seen in India as that of a patron and client, and Pakistani army as a mercenary army. India, in contrast, sees its own relations with the West in terms of ‘partnership’, regardless of how the West sees that relationship.

Given this newly naturalized self-perception, how could Indians allow the carefully cultivated image to be tarnished? The colonial drama, this time, unfolded actually not on the LoC but in the streets of Delhi, where a young woman was raped and brutally assaulted, and instead of accepting it as a fact of women’s life in India’s capital, as has been the norm, for once a large number of students and activists protested, calling the assault barbaric and demanding an end to the lackadaisical government attitude toward such violence. Although the protests petered out soon, the Indian establishment found itself badly covered in the international press. How could barbarity exist in the heart of the (junior) civilization when such barbarity is supposed to be the calling of those living across the LoC. Barbarism was thus to be reassigned to where it belonged, hence the explosion of outrage over a supposed ‘beheading’ on the LoC. The LoC violence was presented as barbaric to wash away the brutal violence that had suddenly become visible right in the heart of the Indian state.

But India, being young at the game, still hasn’t been able to mask completely the inner violence the way colonial powers did. The colonized rarely got a glimpse of the everyday violence at the heart of the metropole, or the ignominy of pauperization that industrialization and exploitation had caused in London, Manchester, or Paris. Revenge in India is still expressed in ‘primitive’ terms: “bring 40 heads back for one!” as an Indian politician roared. In the half-made postcolonial worlds, with their elites still pining after Western recognition, dissonances in discourses and practices are expected. A couple of years back a Muslim woman from Jammu was awarded a national prize for hacking two Kashmiri rebels to death with an axe. As certain reports in the progressive Indian circles show Indian soldiers decapitated Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil War, even though Indian journalists who knew about it practiced their own version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Recently Arif Ayaz Parrey, a Kashmiri essayist, wrote movingly about early 1990s when Indian soldiers decapitated several villagers and policemen in a night of murderous frenzy in Dialgam, South Kashmir. (Which region in Kashmir doesn’t have similar stories?) Gurkha regiment of the Indian army was dreaded in Kashmir for the khukris they carried. Khukris were no playthings, each one hung over our necks like the sword of Damocles—and they came without the throne of Dionysus.

Indian Hindu middle class’s self-perception is an inversion of the early colonial misconceptions about Hindu cultures. For the British, writes historian Bernard Cohen, India was a heathen remnant of the Biblical past. Colonial historians, like James Mill, saw Hindu India as an inert ancient society crushed under lineal and caste burdens, which was incapable of governing itself. Instead of discarding completely such dubious colonial constructions, and the logic based on which they were formed, the Indian middle-class re-invokes and re-appropriates the same logic, and seeks recognition as a civilization from its erstwhile colonial rulers. By depicting Muslim Pakistan as barbaric, the colonial drama is replayed, but this time Indians sanctimoniously seat themselves as the civilized. The older memories of being misrepresented have been forgotten.

Since 1947, India has seen Pakistani actions along the borders as barbaric: be it the ‘invasion of the tribal hordes’, and their ‘wanton rapine’, or their ‘destabilizing’ support to Kashmiris. India sees its own invasion of Kashmir as having halted ‘tribals’ from ‘running over’, and its military occupation in Kashmir as a way to prevent ‘disintegration’—another sign recklessly attributed to Pakistan. By flinging colonial stereotypes at Pakistan, it makes the Indian middle class feel better, yet it neither does away with the innumerable brutalities taking place across India now, nor the truly rapacious nature of capitalist accumulation, which keeps more than half of the Indian population in perpetual penury.

There is still a lively tradition of celebrating beheadings in India. Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are full of them. Ravana’s head was chopped off twelve times. Perhaps, they are celebrated because the heads belong to the Evil Other. Yet, the idea of beheadings never caused such warmongering outrage among ordinary Indians, as Indian corporate media has recently fanned. The LoC events evoked such jingoist response because the republic has become more self-righteous than ever.


This article was first published in Kashmir Reader, 30 Jan 2013.


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