Discipline, Dissent and ‘Urban Naxals’

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Satyaki Roy
One of the major features of the current regime is that it insinuates a concerted process of criminalization, assassination and intimidation as an evolving architecture of punishment not being backed by any judicial probe. Gauri Lankesh, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare died not because they were sentenced to death in the court of law, rather murdered by terrorists who are affiliated to the rightwing outfit Sanatan Sanstha. Since 2015 seventy-seven people mostly belonging to the minority Muslims were lynched to death either by cow vigilantes or by mob who take pride in killing human beings in the name of defending India’s tradition, culture and what not and can easily get away since the current regime believes in promoting a particular ‘way of life’, hence, see nothing wrong in executing faith through extra-judicial power. 

Protesting students and dissenting voice in JNU and in other universities are slapped with hefty amounts of fines, intimidation ranges from attempts to shoot, destroy academic career and the least being harassment on a regular basis hampering academic pursuits. All these are imposed and actualized not by following any legal procedure but as practicing art of disciplining dissenting voice using institutional and organisational apparatus that are immediate and local. Recently five prominent left leaning voice supporting the cause of the poor and the Dalits are being arrested from different parts of India allegedly being linked with the Bhima-Koregaon violence case. Poet Varavar Rao in Hyderabad, civil rights activist, intellectual and author Anand Teltumbde in Goa, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, lawyer and human rights activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves in Mumbai, former PUCL secretary journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy in Ranchi were arrested. A complaint has also been lodged against noted playwright and Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad for publicly supporting these activists. Two days after the arrest Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi while releasing Vice President Mr. M. Venkaiah Naidu’s book in Delhi, commented that ‘If someone calls for discipline, he is branded autocratic’. The Prime Minister’s emphasis on discipline may appear to be benign but in the current context it should not be read as a casual remark just to refer Mr. Naidu as a ‘disciplinarian’.

Discipline and Dissent
Let us focus on the notion of discipline, its architecture and articulation that rulers require to instrumentalise reason. A social system is generally defined by its structure but every structure requires a set of apparatus to articulate and instrumentalise that structure. Even if the production relations of a system largely remain same we come across various regimes within a structure that emerge at various points of time and space to resolve the fissures and contradictions erupting within the system. A regime defines its tools, instruments and broadly apparatus of articulating power. There are two poles of mediation of power within capitalism: market and organisation. Generally, we talk about market and often consciously or unconsciously fail to realise the importance of organisation in capitalism. Market signifies a posteriori equilibrium between private producers while organisation is a priori arrangement in which the market is embedded. Organisation includes the juridico- political order encompassing large arrays of institutions that actualises hierarchies of power. In capitalism individuals are supposed to be ‘rational agent’ in the economic order and ‘reasonable’ in the juridical-political order. And in both these mediations power seems to be invisible and is consciously being kept invisible in the ‘sciences’ and ‘theories’ of mainstream academic narratives. 

In a market society exchanges take place on the basis of equivalence hence presumably everyone gets its due. Therefore, no one is exploited. Similarly, in a democratic society all have one vote and all are equal in the eyes of law. This formal narrative of capitalism doesn’t recognize power, exploitation, humiliation or intimidation because power works by norms enacted in the inside, in a closed universe, in the dark of the formal structures, where power is visible in the immediate. 

Marx in Capital unearthed the ‘hidden abode of production’, where there is no market, labour power is subsumed into capital under the control of the employer. It is the command structure that only rules once the labourer is put to work and surplus value is being produced by exploiting the worker. This hidden abode remains hidden in the market order, it is the ‘real’ beyond the ‘formal’, it is the articulation of power in the immediate, it is through this apparatus the structure accumulates and get reproduced. Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish’ recognized the architecture of discipline, how the disciplinary order in Europe evolved at the end of the eighteenth century. Discipline is an architecture of power beyond the formal juridico-political mediation. It is through which the rulers control the body and mind of individuals, train them to ‘reasonably’ condition their responses, creates norms, attitudes such that they internalise the rules of the game as normal. Discipline invokes the surplus of power beyond the juridical order. Discipline is articulated through institutions, through barracks, schools, factories and hospitals. It is about controlling the individual through a second penal context which is the site of micropower. The extreme is to create a man-machine subject, the ultimate metaphor of ‘discipline’, a soldier who is not supposed to think but carry out commands flowing from the superiors. This man-machine is the distillate of a process in which varying degrees of tolerance and flexibility are added to create desirable and reasonable human subjects fit for various social institutions. The celebration of the ‘jawan’ image, posing them as the only sanctioned reference point of sacrifice and nationalism is significant on this count. None of the children of the rich, elite or powerful have ever laid their lives in a battle at the border defending the country, nevertheless they become instrumental in setting a peculiar narrative of ideal  saying none other than the jawans contribute to the betterment of the country. This narrative actually idealises discipline, a command structure that has hardly any space to question. 

Discipline is the surplus of power by which a collective temporal rhythm of a regime is created. It is an articulation of power beyond the realm of formal judicial legislative system. It sets the norm of discourse. Therefore, you can talk about a soldier but you cannot raise issues of his or her parents who might be a farmer or an agricultural worker, a factory worker; you cannot question the oppressions that Dalits and women face every day in our society, you cannot support the cause of adivasis and of their livelihood. Dissent therefore has to be tackled through discipline.

Why ‘Urban Naxals’
Vilification and criminalisation of dissent can be done in many ways. One way of doing it is to describe all forms of dissent under the blanket term ‘terrorism’. These days one can easily be termed a terrorist if she or he disobeys laws as a form of protest. We often forget that the legal system that evolved over the years, however, is an informed process of reconciling contestations that emerged in different points of time in the society. And these contestations had never been ‘disciplined’ as the rulers might have desired to be. 

The coinage of the term ‘urban naxals’ is significant. Somehow Naxalism is viewed as the tradition of radical left which believe in armed struggle and the politics of individual annihilation. There had been long debates within the tradition itself and also otherwise on how such strategies impact on people’s struggles. But Maoism and Naxalism (if one may call it) is easily equated with ‘terrorism’ in the official discourse. Since they have waged war against the Indian military as a response to state backed large scale corporate grab of natural resources, forests, mines and water, issues that are related to their livelihood, the official narrative sees it as a menace plaguing the rural hinterlands of India. Hence labelling someone as Urban Naxal is the implicit way of equating someone with a terrorist. The term ‘terrorist’ however has been the gift of the state, it always existed in the dictionary power. The British used it in vilifying radical patriots, the US uses it today in criminalising its own creations. It is the creation of the ‘other’ through which the powerful justifies its terror over the powerless. And now it is used against civil rights activists, intellectuals, trade unionists regardless of the fact whether one adheres to violence or not. In fact, it seems there is hardly any relation between use of violence and imposition of the label ‘terrorist’. If you are a dalit activist a trade unionist or an academic or journalist and you share the concerns of the poor and the marginalized you can be termed as a ‘terrorist’ or ‘naxal’ even if you didn’t take recourse to violence. But if you are a gau rakshak you have the liberty to kill a person, beat someone to death and can be considered nationalist and not a terrorist.  Breaking all laws you can mobilize thousands and thousands of karshevaks to destroy Babri Masjid, preside over a genocide and then assume supreme office in secular India arguing that you represented the will of the majority. 

The voices of dissent need to be disciplined, they have to be tamed and domesticated. Call them ‘terrorist’ or urban Naxal and criminalise protest. On the other hand, black out the organised left, make them invisible in the media, as if they do not exist and push the left discourse of different shades at the margin of the democratic process, and portray them as villains of democratic India. The very act of protest either should sound like terrorism or should not be heard at all. This art of silencing dissent cannot be achieved only by a juridical-political system but requires something ‘surplus’ of power over and above the formal legal system. It requires an appropriate architecture of discipline, the art of defining norms of the ‘reasonable’, the art of intimidation that would create conforming subjects through subtle intervention of the immediate agents of power. 

The Prime Minister perhaps sees the ‘dangerous class’ emerging and like all previous rulers seems to have nurtured the mistaken hope of curing the ‘unruly’ by ‘discipline’! 

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi