Questions of the ethics of representation re-emerged around the images of the recent lynching and hanging of two Muslim boys in Latehar and an unmarked video entitled ‘Upper caste women strip Dalit women.’ Academics have been talking about the need not to see or circulate the images of the two Muslim bodies; journalists have been exhorting people not to share the video as the victims’ faces have not been blurred.
What would the blurring of the faces of the Dalit women change? What would not showing the dead bodies of the Muslims achieve? Public stripping and parading of Dalits has been and continues to be a cherished practice among upper castes. Why must we invisibilise this violence? Why must we not see the naked brutality of this public humiliation of Dalits?
Recently, Dalits stripped off their own clothes in protest and Meitei women did it in 2004 to protest army atrocities in Manipur. In neither case did the people involve want their faces blurred. Why must we not see the brutality of the dead and contorted body of a young Muslim man, almost boy? Why must we not see Muslim bodies hanging from a tree?
In our age of phone cameras, when everything can be captured, isn’t it all the more important to see the faces of the oppressors as much as the oppressed? Isn’t that how the Delhi lawyers who beat up a boy in the court premises at Patiala House in New Delhi were caught?
Of course, different meanings will accrue to these images. To some, they might be a cause for celebration; to others a cause for mourning. We cannot dictate how these images are read or experienced by different people. On what grounds might we legislate that certain images not be seen at all? By keeping these images away from the public, are we not re-invisibilising the pain and suffering of marginalised groups like Dalits and Muslims?
The middle class does not want to see these images; they do not want to be upset. They claim to want to protect the dignity and integrity of those stripped and killed. But isn’t the real crime that they have done nothing to stop these things from happening in the first place? Isn’t that far more important than objecting to images bearing testimony to the fact that these things do frequently happen in our contexts?
What these images do is to rent, however temporarily, the fabric that invisibilises this violence which is an everyday reality for the poor and marginalised among these groups. We need to have more of these images to remind us what we are capable of, what we do to each other on a daily basis and what our violent and murderous republic is all about.
The argument that such images render us immune to human suffering is absurd. If that were true, why would there be any outrage at all. 24x7 news channels shows us much worse on a daily basis; popular cinema in all the major languages show us worse on a weekly basis. Glossy violence is perfectly acceptable to us; cinematic rape is the staple of our fantasies. But the grittiness and realism of the images of the Muslim boys and the horror of women stripping Dalit women is something we refuse to accept.
Our squeamishness over these images conceals a far nastier truth. The fact is that we enjoy these images; we get voyeuristic pleasure out of them. Secretly, we love seeing Dalit women stripped; we gloat over dead Muslim bodies. These images lay bare the relationship between our sexual and bodily desires and the polis or the state. It becomes clear to us why the Army goes for Kashmiri men’s genitalia first while torturing them. It becomes clear to us why riots involve rape as humiliation and conquest.
Our sexual lives, like our political lives, are rotten to the core. But we do not want anyone to rub that in our faces.
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Ashley Tellis is an Associate Professor in Gender, Writing and Research at IMHST, BALM, Chennai