The art of dehumanization
by Seema Amin
‘A door marked enemy and no one home.’ Tom Engelhardt.
‘If you repeat a lie enough times, it becomes the truth.’ Electra, my love (1974 Hungarian film).
It will not be too overcast to say the 21st century (Anno Domini, whose 12 years and some hundred days have passed) has thus far been the century of the “enemy-industrial complex”. On the hooves of September, this century had me in its reins, in the belly of the bombshell.
Twelve years ago, on the downward slope of a hill on my university campus, I got caught in the eye of a storm. This Cyclops surged on the spiral wheels of inchoate justice: an eternal return. This storm has been called the war against terror, it has also been associated with a certain math— the algebra of infinite justice, always requiring more… As we follow Cyclone Mahasen, caviar before the ecocides of the Sundarbans and Tipaimukh, I can’t help remembering the calm before the deluge, a cool emptiness right before empire’s busts surged into erratic tumult, spiraling into itself and outward… existing as a force from nothing, that creates nothing, leaving destruction, ‘water and shadow, shadow and water. ‘ (Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard, Lorca) This storm baptized the ‘hearts of leather’ that carry out the worst in war, it legitimized that which could not be; it made inhumanity look human, and humanity—in its miserable torment—look inhuman.
At that moment, when everyone ran to give blood to the innocent dead, to the random and arbitrary living, the return of a thousand unanswered deaths across four continents met a people sucked into the whirlwind created by their state, the humble heart of empire. Ghosts, ancestors, the unavenged…sang the screeching melodies of revenge, the Furies paraded in the new clothes of the new dead, while the older dead stretched their batwings from Karbala to Manchala.
It is rather bathetic to always be quoting Shakespeare, but Titus Andronicus has been the revelatory myth of the age for me, ever since I came across it. In the wake of the night ‘action’ in Shapla chottor, and the penultimate figures of the dead of Rana Plaza, two verses from Act 3, Scene I reverberated.
Titus asks, as he faces the loss of all his sons at the hands of the Goth Tamora (whose sons he once helped capture for Rome, who were put to death):
‘Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine…’
On seeing his daughter Lavinia, tongueless, with all the speechless marks of rape on her body:
‘What fool hath added water to the sea,
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?
My grief was at the height before thou camest,
And now like Nilus, it disdaineth bounds.’
Eventually, Titus decides that as his sorrow is ‘unbound’, his revenge too—his seeking of justice or healing for his sorrow, in the un-Stoic fashion of the revenge tragedy—would be unbound. He serves a banquet of Tamora’s sons to her. So goes the grotesque and simple logic of infanticide as justice. This myth of the feast of one’s children, this myth of killing another’s children, and a mother hungry for revenge, has emerged in my psyche as the myth of the century, ageless and current.
An eye for an eye was not the mythos of what became everyone’s war. Rather, it was more like our homegrown ethos: ‘for every dead of mine, I will kill ten of yours.’ The luxury of revenge, its unbound cartharsis, is the opposite of the Stoic rationale for a just war—where the rules of justus bellum dictate that you risk the cruelty of your enemy because you believe in a restrained ‘justice’, as opposed to an unbound and often, unimaginable, revenge. But that’s Greek philosophy, and that was the European renaissance, following the horrors of medieval orgies of feudal violence: where public quartering took place as ‘globally’ as Shakespeare’s plays.
Back to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2013.
Since 2004, Bangladesh has been ever increasingly aligned with empire— the BNP gave us the ‘gift of a death squad’ via the UK, and the League was the handpicked ‘moderate’ party of choice by the neocon think tanks of the Wall Street Journal (speaking for capitalist hegemony in the region). The logic of this is infinitely reductive, infinitely expansive. Simple and grotesque like the Furor of Terror itself:
The enemy must be among us.
But the variation at home is different. Faruk Wasif has cautioned about getting caught up in these global discourses, as we burn our own house. To use his phrase– ‘burning our own house for forty years’ has elicited much more than just a ‘political’ tendency: it is the very socio-cultural fabric of this society that has emerged as torn, as ‘burning,’ as haunted. Ready material for puppeteers, playwrights, the fashionistas of war.
At home, the theatricality of revenge is steeped in a pure historical need for ritual grief in public and legal forms, in a ‘janatar’ moncho, a theatre of justice that can be conjured at will before elections, after verdicts, at the right and wrong time. Yet, being a child of a refugees from 1971 and having witnessed Victory Day and February 21st enactments and memorializations of 1971 all my life, I could not help but think—this genocide has been anything but repressed in a nation that won its liberation before the entire world. Yes, there have been struggles for historical narratives, at different times competing for hegemony. But the hyper-enactments of ritual grief, justice and the ‘tormenting’ of the criminal (explicit clobbering of the war criminal with a bottle, where the face of the criminal was not always clearly identified as a specific criminal, but a random man with tupee and beard) was an enactment of justice—rather than public mourning. Those ‘artists’ of Shahbagh were enacting the ghosts of their ancestors. They were not releasing direct grief, an immediate loss.
There are buttons you can push in the Bangladeshi psyche—one of them is Ekattur, another is the name of the Prophet. Both those buttons were pushed in the script written by… (what invisible hand, I do not know).
When exactly did it occur to me that Shahbagh was turning into something that feeds into repression, by eliminating difference, rather than turning into a greater fire, a fire that would engulf Ashulia? Today, as social media again reveals ‘progressive ultra-secular’ repression in the face of a survey published by Prothom Alo, it’s time we interrogated not only our neglect as the middle or upper middle class to see the class murder of the poor (Azfar Hussein calls it “structural class genocide”) — fed into factories or madrasas—but also the tendencies of our nationalism, not unlike those of dogmatic orthodox believers.
One of the earliest videos of Shahbagh pushed both those buttons. It mixed horrifying truth, the reality of genocide, with inescapable, inflammatory juxtapositions of Evil vs. Good. The video began with ‘Evil’ symbolized with a crescent (symbolically the Pakistani flag, but one can not deny the symbolic association of the crescent also with Islam) and ‘Good’ as the Bangladeshi one. The intentions of the film could not have been merely to ‘hang’ war criminals as part of a long-awaited trial for justice. A much more ‘secular’ intention lay there (I am playing with the word secular– secular as the absence of value, the cynical denominator being self-interest). An intention to inflame. When Hefajot claimed ‘nastiks’ were making all tupee and bearded men look like Jamaat and war criminals, it did not come from thin air. The atmosphere of that dramatic stage took a turn away from grief and justice, towards revenge and an infinite association. Those who initially supported it started backing away in repulsion as children hung themselves with symbolic nooses.
It was hard to pinpoint why so just a cause could create so twisted a response; but for someone like me, steeped in Titus Andronicus, with an instinct for the ‘theatrical nerve,’ it was not unexpected at all. From the beginning, a certain ‘artist’ gave their signature and style to Shahbagh, taking it away from the spontaneous creativity of those who were looking for ‘the masses’ to show up near Dhaka university, rather than Shapla chottor, Tazreen or Savar. Once the demands of Shahbagh moved from highest punishment to banning, censorship and ever more additional ‘enemies’– as the Moncho took over the chottor, as Shahbagh got baptized in the eerie fashion that places get baptized in Bangladesh (the hundreds of conference halls, udyans and airports that change names) as ‘Projonmo Chottor.’ And Shahbagh, innocently, became the handmaiden for the uprising that is always simultaneously the uprising of internal and external forces.
What will happen to the grief of the Hefazat? Those who came by accident, those who got caught up in this play? Catherine Sheehy, in ‘Let Anger Turn to Grief, Not Revenge’ (October 2001), says: “Disenfranchised grief refers to the grief experienced when loss is not acknowledged openly, publicly mourned, or socially supported. On an individual level, the consequence of this can be an unconscious reaction that surfaces through emotions, behavior and attitudes that can result in personal and relational health problems. When collective grief is disenfranchised, society’s emotions and behaviors can manifest in ways that tear at the social fabric.”
I ask myself, was the genocide of 1971 a disenfranchised grief? And has Shahbagh given us back our right to grieve, through this demand for justice? Has Projonmo Chottor given it back to us? And if so, what have we become now that we are moving towards the disenfranchising of other people’s grief, again, as we erect a counter- Hefazat platform even before an investigation into Shapla Chottor ‘action’ has taken place? Do we start looking like our oppressors? And is that oppressor the state? And who was behind that state then? Who is there now?
Well, all shows have their curtain calls. Hefajot came in to say what others could not say, but wanted to: Enough is enough. The state can take over now—since your demands appear identical. We don’t need this ‘visible government’ to counter the shadow government that shook hands with Jamaat. Take a bow.
One Madame announced an insurrection, and the other Madame gave permission to Hefajot’s leaders to hold their pre-occupation rally in a central business district. The alliance between the ruling parties’ rulers could not be sweeter. Like Ramu, again, Jamaat, the Awami League, and BNP seemed like co-writers of a play. Perhaps because none of them were controlling the final script.
But the final orders to attack in the middle of the night was the state’s: in the pure daylight of our dehumanization of a group that is associated with the crimes of their compadres or enemies, in the mirror that makes children wearing white look uglier than children wearing red and green. Both screaming ‘Faschi chai’ rather mindlessly. We allowed the revenge tragedies of the establishment to feast on innocence. Shahbagh’s leaders have died too. One died by a League goonda (fratricide?) and another by North South students. Now it is time for a bit of free association. Was North South not also the place where Nafis came from? Who are the beneficiaries of the Bangladesh connection?
Within Bangladesh, the door marked ‘enemy’ always has a name—it is either the Awami League or BNP—and you can put anyone behind that door, as long as you close the door on that name. A third force has now become the greatest enemy: Jamaat. And whom we put behind that door, whether a child or a war criminal, is starting to become irrelevant. Terror sees as terror blinds.
Tomorrow they push the woman rights’ button and we all come running to scream for our rights, yesterday they pushed the Prophet button and they came to die, before that still they burned temples and ‘anti-extremist’ secularists rose up. Some must live, some must die. But there is no second Troy to burn.
War and capital will decide who; our national wars will get conscripted into the international ones. Our burning house will see water coming from the dead sea. Dream on, musafir.
Let me never be a part of a womanhood that baptizes the murder of children. The nature of immediate revenge is not unlike that of fear. There is something unbound in fear, in revenge: Terror.
Seema Nusrat Amin is author of a book of verse, Bootsole Unbound: by the wayside of mystery (UPL).