Saavdhaan: The Regimes of Truth
Curator’s Note for the exhibition in New Delhi
A brightly decorated house is on fire. A loudspeaker sings shrill praises of the patriarch. No one is seen exiting the building. A singular woman fights the blaze. Is the rest of the structure empty, or have its inhabitants been convinced the flames are unreal? The dark times of authoritarianism have returned and fascists are out on the streets. A small glimmer of hope during these bleak days is the ability to see clearly, and thus prepare to counter, the otherwise obscured forces of what Michel Foucault has theorized as disciplinary power. He asserted that beginning in the Eighteenth Century, power structures transformed to exercise control over the mind — rather than the body — of the subject, cutting much deeper into all aspects of the individual’s life.1 Modern social institutions, such as education, healthcare, justice, and prison systems, incorporate these disciplinary terms which ensure citizens are carefully fabricated into the dictated social order.
Post-colonial theorist Sanjay Seth notes “parallels between the processes described by Foucault and developments in the colonial world, where new regimes of power-knowledge were used to rule conquered peoples and to map and sometimes remake the social field.”2 The colonial project of the institutionalization and acceptance of government law and bureaucracy has come full circle, as post-independence Indian governments now use these institutions to enforce their neo-imperialist agenda, and none as well as the current right-wing government. The Hindi word Saavdhaan (used both as a military call to attention as well as a neighbourly hark of safety) viscerally captures the dichotomous tension that hangs over the country today and is depicted in Arko Datto ‘s nighttime photographs. Citizens can either get behind the marching band of the populist regime or live in a state of constant wariness pre-empting an attack around the corner and whilst a third route exists, it is obfuscated by fear.
The performance Attention! choreographed by Mandeep Raikhy with sound design by Samar Grewal, articulates through moving bodies the incessant beat of ideological messaging we are witnessing in India today. The ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mothership Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have carefully deployed all forms of dissemination — from school textbooks to Whatsapp groups — to propagate their idea of Hindutva, a movement that promotes militant Hindu nationalism and the establishment of a Hindu state. This vision has been shrewdly tied into the project of nationalism, effectively portraying those who question it as anti-national. From cultural institutions to universities, to history itself, none are exempt from the voracious onslaught of saffronisation (a term that denotes the appropriation of Hindu culture and iconography, like the aesthetics of saffron robes, by political power seekers). Hindutva ideologues have been placed in leading positions at institutions like the Archeological Survey of India and the National Museum, and the Ministry of Culture has set up an official committee of bureaucrats, archaeologists, and Sanskritists to write a revisionist history of India.3
The BJP came into power in 2014 on the back of the larger than life figure of Narendra Modi, waving the promise of development, a narrative that they have been unable to bolster with metrics from the ground. Their strategies have spiralled into all sorts of media histrionics from monogrammed suits to yoga videos — absurdities that look back at us in Vidisha Saini ‘s absurdist-theatre interventions. In lieu of any tangible successes, politicians deployed distractions in the form of paid and fake news to uphold a shining facade. Analytics website IndiaSpend has reported that the government’s declared advertising expenditures from 2014–2018 was so large it could have fed a midday meal for a year to 46 million children.4 A larger threat presents itself in undeclared manipulations that have spun alternative realities, a strategy that Asim Waqif also uses to blur fact and fiction. The one-sided mainstream media narratives around Demonetization (a critical moment in 2016 when 86% of the country’s bank notes were delegitimized) illustrate the state’s control over TV and print outputs during an event of such national importance. Vishal Kumaraswamy’s single-channel video installation assembles reports that lie outside these mass produced views to reveal the ripple effects of this pivotal move.
Controlling the media is easier when “friends” of the government, like Reliance Industries, have major stakes in the biggest media networks. Corporate pressure, along with threats to proprietors and systemic bullying, has spread an atmosphere of fear within media houses and their editors. This atmosphere, not limited to the media sphere, is further spread to all parts of society through the persistent machinery of the party’s IT cell and Whatsapp Army. Muslims have been affected the most in what must be called out as an undeclared apartheid against the community. The ban on beef, defended as a protective measure for the “holy cow,” has been the trigger for multiple public mob lynchings of Muslim men suspected of transporting or consuming beef. Sarah Naqvi ‘s intimate crochet sculptures draw on her family’s history, reminding us that violence against Muslims has always been an issue in post-independence India, but the lack of government condemnation against these acts solidified with the 2002 pogroms in Godhra has allowed such aggression without fear of consequence. Sanket Jadia ‘s drawings investigate the politics of visibility in the media coverage of these incidences. Violence against Dalits and other lower-caste communities has been an abominable part of sub-continental life for centuries, and the atmosphere of rampant divisiveness and police inaction does nothing to alleviate this. The domination of upper-caste editors and journalists within newsrooms also means that Dalit narratives continue to be over-simplified and misinterpreted in situations like the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Maharashtra in 2018, coverage that Smita Rajmane analyzes in her archival installation.
This persistent onslaught of fear and misinformation is being systematically produced to undermine India’s democratic process. These frameworks have become so entrenched that escaping them has become nearly impossible. Every time we choose safety over truth, intimidation over assertion, we surrender the little space we occupy as citizens and weaken our democratic machinery. Journalist Ravish Kumar has described the fog of fear as a resting point between courage and rashness,5 a visualization that finds itself in Payal Arya ‘s mixed media installation.
I read some hope in Paranjoy Guha Thakurta imagination of the future of media as one with an abundance of journalists, not in the traditional sense, but rather as those who are “able to bring about greater transparency, less corruption and demand more accountability.”6 A few media groups are pushing towards this vision of information as a public good, seizing its power and placing it back with citizens. Video Volunteers, with a network of over 250 community correspondents across the country, empowers individuals to take control of their narratives
through the technology of video production. Over 5,700 videos have been created, covering urgent issues as well as stories of success. One of the last bastions in the media landscape, multilingual digital publication The Wire has been slapped with multiple defamation cases from both political and corporate players thanks to its exemplary investigative journalism. Editorially and financially independent, one hopes the organization can ward off the political pressures and systemic inadequacies faced by media networks. Set up by an engineer turned media-vigilante, AltNews takes on one of the more dangerous tools in the neo-fascist arsenal: fake news. Using both digital and traditional investigative methods, the team has been instrumental in capping the spread of harmful fabrications across party lines.
Literature has always been one of the key elements of Indian resistance movements, but its posterity has been subject to the same powers it seeks to fight. In the 1970s an upsurge of Dalit literature was instrumental in creating the radical Dalit Panthers (inspired by the Black Panthers) but most of this material remains out of mass public access. The Dalit Panther Archive is committed to digitizing the archive of writings, magazines, and other materials from this movement. The little magazine movement also erupted in India within and around the Dalit Panthers movement. The format, now popularly called the zine, has grown in recent usage with illustrators, poets, and artists drawn to its subversion of capital and censorship. RJ Shikha Mandi evokes narratives in a different format through her radio show, Johar Jhargram, spreading the Santhal Indigenous language and culture. The show broadcast entirely in Santhali, marries social issues with humor and village music, making it a big hit with local communities.
Moving from vigilance, I take you now to another translation of attention — dhyaan — meaning care. I move forward within these dark times with the hope that they will open us up to caring beyond our imagined communities, beyond ourselves. I hope our ideas of futures beyond here reflect a careful commitment to plurality over the dissemination of divisiveness. Whether it’s through our phones, computers, or other technologies, we are no longer just passive consumers within the realms of information. Every post, every shared image is another particle of charge constituting the invisible layers of power-knowledge. As hyper-connected prosumers, are we ready to wake up to our responsibility and own up to our complicity?
1. Michel Foucault, Discipline And Punish: the Birth of the Prison , (New York: Pantheon Books), 1977.
2. Sanjay Seth, “Foucault in India”, in Foucault and the History of Our Present, Eds. Sophie Fuggle, Yari Lanci, Martina Tazzioli, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 43–57.
3. Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter, “ Special Report: By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India,” Reuters , March 6, 2018, accessed August 17, 2018, https://reut.rs/2Bttq5Q .
4. Shreya Raman, “Govt Ad Spend Could Feed 46 Million Children Mid-Day Meals For A Year,“ IndiaSpend, August 10, 2018, accessed August 17, 2018, https://bit.ly/2BeqsSk.
5. Ravish Kumar, The Free Voice, (New Delhi: Speaking Tiger), 2018.
6. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, “Future of alternative media in India,” in Alternative Futures: India Unshackled, Ed. K.J. Joy and Ashish Kothari, (India: AuthorsUpFront, 2017), 460–479.
Shaunak Mahbubani © 2018 apexart Open Call Exhibition
(This exhibition is part 2 of Shaunak Mahbubani’s series Allies for the Uncertain Futures)
Venue: Kalakar Theater, Saidul-Ajaib, New Delhi, India
October 7 — November 3, 2018
Wednesday — Saturday, 12–7pm
Special thanks to the Kalakar Trust for their donation of the exhibition venue, The Gujral Foundation for their support, Karan Kaul for organizing ‘Zine: Medium as Message’, Shiva Nallaperumal and Juhi Vishnani for identity design, Abid Saifi for production, Rihaa Kaur as Exhibition Manager, Kshitij as Exhibition Assistant, Pallavi Surana for research, and Vidisha Saini, Tej Haldule, Paris Furst, Léuli Eshraghi, Carole Dieterich, Niha Masih, and Polina Schapova for their invaluable help and feedback.