“Picture-Thinking”: Sovereignty and Citizenship in Bangladesh

It focuses on two public texts, a national identification card and a censored photograph, both generated during a state of emergency in Bangladesh, from 2007-2008.

1. “Picture-Thinking”: Sovereignty and Citizenship in Bangladesh
by Nusrat Chowdhury, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Amherst College

This article offers insights into the classic impasse of citizenship and sovereignty in post-colonial South Asia. It focuses on two public texts, a national identification card and a censored photograph, both generated during a state of emergency in Bangladesh, from 2007-2008.

By “impasse,” I point to the ideological loop that paternalistic authority resorts to in the name of governance, where a repressive, corrupt, and/or un-democratic governmental apparatus is blamed for the underdeveloped political rationality of its citizens. For the very same reason, sovereignty as domination is justified in order to protect these masses from their own unruly nature, that is, from becoming members of crowds as opposed to proper citizens. Examining the humor surrounding the electronic circulation of an identification document, amidst attempts to roll out a national ID card during the Emergency, I draw attention to the limits of the non-ancestral mode of political power that attempted to interpellate a new kind of citizen. My analysis of a photograph, that was later censored, of a man kicking an official in military uniform suggests that the crowd forms the always-threatening backdrop against which a range of individual and collective identities of the citizen are articulated. On an analytical level, I develop a theory of “picture-thinking” as a key function of sovereignty. I take the formulation from William Mazzarella who, following G. W. F. Hegel and Gustave Le Bon, historicizes the purported opposition between so-called rational citizens and affective crowds. Ultimately, I argue that the post-colonial sovereign, quick to blame the crowds for “picture-thinking,” more often than not, partakes of this very act.


Still, performances of transparency signaled the possibility of secrets elsewhere, and trust seemed particularly elusive at a time of grand expectations and greater suspicions. Anxieties persisted around the potential success of a timely gathering of the requisite data for the elections to take place at all. In a densely-populated country with inadequate infrastructure, the possibility of success was understandably far-fetched. Some won- dered if it was another ploy to thwart the elections. Theories, conspirato- rial and otherwise, were also advanced with an aim to unveil the political schema lurking behind the smokescreen of democratic reform. Others saw this consolidation of a graphic regime of surveillance as one of the state’s first steps toward fascism (Ahmed and Alam 2013).

As was expected, the tiny piece of plastic and the process of procuring it generated an equal amount of excitement and disillusionment. Confusion as to the proper function of the card in the everyday bureaucratic life of the citizen straddled the boundaries of desire and despair. One man at a voting center was optimistic: “I don’t care what you all say, I’m not losing my National ID, I will get to America with this card” (Mohaiemen 2008). The confusion surrounding the card was further compounded by a technical glitch: the photographs that most cards finally displayed nearly failed to serve their purpose of state recognition. Western readers would find uncanny similarities between these ID photos and those surreal, distorted, and comic representations that are magic mirror reflections.

A letter to the editor sums up the exasperation of a newly registered voter:

I was awfully shocked when I received my national ID card…Those who came to collect their respective National ID card were flabbergasted to see their photographs. They could not, like me, recognise their own pictures. Not a single person was satisfied with the distort- ed photograph in the identity card…The photograph in the identity card is neither colour nor black and white. It is simply an irritating and confusing picture. (The Daily Star 2008, emphasis added)

The pictorial distortions disturb the classic mode of state picture-think- ing that is an ID card, thus throwing the aspiring citizen back into a crowd. The technical problems of a newly introduced computerized data entry system disrupt the way in which an ID photo seeks eye-to-eye interpellation, as it were, by its straight-on framing of the person. The “irritation” of the letter writer is partly related to the inability of the citizen to become part of this massive project of transparency and hence a part of Bangladesh’s political modernity. The irritation and confusion are precisely because one finds oneself unrecognizable—to the state and to oneself—and is there- fore relegated once more to the primitive crowd.

The state’s failure to engage its citizens in mutual recognition, moreover, exceeded the technical glitches in the logistics of taking photographs. I argue that the misrecognition bespeaks a deeper failure of identification that haunts most state projects of enumeration (Scott 1998). Let me offer a photo of an ID card of Kasu Mia, a citizen of Bangladesh, to explain what I mean.

According to the information on the card (Figure 1), Kasu Mia was born on January 1, 1962. As is typi- cal of the format of the temporary card given to newly registered voters, it features a photo of its owner on the left with his signature on the bottom. The list of requisite information includes the name of the individual in both Bengali and English, as well as both of his parents’ names. In the photo, the 13-digit ID number in bold that appears at the bottom of the picture is displayed in English. The signature of the official issuing the card is partially seen on the right side, while the words “Jatiya Parichay Patra”— National ID Card—are barely visible at the top.

At the outset, what is funny about the card is its failed efficacy. Kasu Mia’s father is identified not by his proper name, but rather by the kin relation by which he is very likely to be addressed in his family: he is “mrito Babur baap”—the father of his deceased son, Babu. Nor is Kasu Mia’s mother listed by her actual name; she is simply “Nayeber Maa”—the mother of Nayeb, who, we presume, is a male sibling of Kasu Mia, the owner of the ID card in question. An Althusserian drama of hailing by which a citizen is interpellated, thus, comically fails (Althusser 2001). It fails simply because, in this case, the state confronts a kinship idiom that flies in the face of its bureaucratic rationality—the enumerating and individuating im- petus of a national identification system. Whether or not this is an actual ID card of a regular citizen or a deliberately modified one is not clear from the conversations around the image. However, the fact that there is a joke to be made is adequate justification for the analysis I offer here.

The naming practices of the state, James Scott and others have argued, require a synoptic view, “a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations” (Scott, Tehranian, and Mathias 2002:5). The creation of a legal, fixed patronym shares long intimacy with the modern project of state building. Rural or working-class Muslim Bengalis such as Kasu Mia often partake of vernacular naming practices that are non-hereditary and context specific. In the larger South Asian context, Mian, among other things, is a last name for Muslim nobility. Its vernacular derivative, Mia, in contemporary Bangladesh, functions as a form of address for any adult Muslim male, either honorific or derogatory. The generic nature of Kasu Mia’s last name adds to the little drama of misrecognition enacted in his ID card.

An ID card, a mark of the individual citizen bearing rights accorded by the nation-state, is a seemingly innocent and powerful repository of political value in the context of Bangladesh’s attempted democratic reforms. When in circulation, Kasu Mia’s card condenses a number of cultural mores supposedly characteristic of a nation and its people held responsible for the failure of democracy (cf. Farquhar 2009). The card has been a joke circulated by some members of Facebook, the principal medium through which this particular state document generated conversations and laughter. Some felt the need to clarify that the object of their laughter was not the hapless citizen Kasu Mia. Instead, it was the state that has be- come the butt of the joke with regard to this play of, or play on citizenship. Many of the buzzwords of our time, from transparency to accountability, are in practical terms calls to documentation.”

“Kasu Mia’s ID card is a case in point. It offers itself as a fecund site where assumptions about the security of identity and rights become unsettled. One can venture from the name and the parental identification—or non- identification, rather—of Kasu Mia that he is a citizen of rural or working class origin. Though he is very much a card-carrying citizen, his identification document nonetheless fails to effectively mediate an idealized citizen- ship as envisioned in the letters through which Yunus addressed the nation. The NGO charisma that Yunus aspired to capitalize for his entry into politics was framed in light of the disjuncture between the citizen of law and the infantile citizen of the likes of Kasu Mia (cf. Berlant 1997). NGOs, of course, operate on a similar paternalistic logic—as did the progressive developmentalism of the Emergency—which retards democratic politics all the while claiming to usher them in. The infantile citizen is still beholden to the affective relations of kinship that dismantle the public–private divide so precious to the fiction of modern liberal democracy. Universal citizenship meant, as Scott, Tehranian, and Mathias argue, “that a citizen [could] be uniquely and reliably distinguishable as an individual and not as a member of a community, manor, guild, or parish” (2002:16, emphasis in original). The new subject/citizen envisioned in the emancipatory ideal of the French Revolution was an abstract, unmarked individual who was the bearer of equal rights before the law (Scott, Tehranian, and Mathias 2002). In Bangladesh, the fact that this supposed divide has been flouted in the most theatrical and predictable fashion in national politics adds certain poignancy to Kasu Mia’s own brand of defiance; in other words, his resis- tance to recognition. A dynastic political culture has thrived by mobilizing kin-terms, most popularly jatir janak (“father of the nation”), being ascribed to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president. Powerful politicians here are known for exploiting kin ties to further their careers. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both heads of state at one point, are, respectively, the daughter and wife of two former presidents. The lateral entry of their progeny into party politics (their sons have officially joined the ancestral parties) has only signaled the continuation of a well-established pan-South Asian trend. Muhammad Yunus offered himself as a glorious exception to this soap opera of national politics. It is Kasu Mia who brings to us, albeit humorously, the failure of that exception that Yunus attempted to exploit. Kasu Mia’s ID is a symptom of the failure of state modernity.”

“Is one laughing at Kasu Mia’s stupidity, then? Partially, at least, it seems. Stupidity, at least in ancient Greece, was seen as remaining outside the domain of the political. “The idiot is the one who is not a citizen,” Avital Ronell (2002:41) tells us. And yet, when stupidity asserts itself without remorse, it paradoxically plays on the side of truth. Stupidity, in Ronell’s reading, remains a phantom of the truth to which it points. And even after asserting that “in crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accu- mulated,” Le Bon goes on to credit them with deep social truths (2002 [1896]:6). Not unlike the Idiot in Dostoevsky’s novel, Kasu Mia exposes the disorder and interruption that constitute the social milieu but normally remain masked (Ronell 2002). But we must be laughing at ourselves too, we the citizens, when we laugh at—not with, mind you—Kasu Mia, or for that matter, the state. Being at once native (a co-citizen) and foreign (keeping what Ronell [2002] describes as an “inextinguishable appeal” of the stranger and evoking a forgotten aura), our idiot evokes laughter in his fellow nationals who align themselves, if only momentarily, with the Idiot as the “we” of a nervous modernity.”

DOWNLOAD FULL ESSAY: “Picture-Thinking”: Sovereignty and Citizenship in Bangladesh [Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 4, p. 1257-1278, ISSN 0003-5491.]

2. Comments on Nusrat Chowdhury’s essay
by Nazmul Sultan, Ph.D. student in Political Science, University of Chicago, for AlalODulal.org

The student rebellion of 2007 deserves wider theoretical attention. Glad to see that you have generated some valuable insights by way of engaging with the event.

I liked the way in which you juxtaposed these two photographs. The one about ID card is expressive of the always-failed (and yet active) desire to govern and manage with efficiency. I paused in this instance for a while and asked if the project of granting ID cards to all citizens signifies the sovereign exercise of “counting” the subjects. It is no accident that the military-civil-society-backed regime took up this project. It’d have been an unlikely move from the elected regimes, and even if they did undertake the project, it would not acquire the same signification.

The political imaginary of the civil society (and I don’t simply designate a handful of Dhaka-dwelling elites by this term; it is a way of thinking about politics that reigns over most of the “non-partisan” discourses, including some of the discourses offered by the Left) is driven by the “lack” of good governance (to put it in a Lacanian way). The reason that a quasi-military coup triggered unprecedented delight and hope among a civil society that had historically been defined by its conflict with the military lies in the futile hope that non-political good bureaucrats would be able to exercise efficient governance.

Even in the public imaginary, the symbol of the military is inextricable from that of efficiency. The process of counting citizens was thus conceived as the beginning of “non-corrupt transparent” governance that would address the crisis of our politics. Kasu Mia’s ID instantiated the irony of acting on such a desire. The desire for order and governance signified the Emergency regime’s exercise of sovereign power (the sovereignty that appropriately stood on its extra-legal exceptionality).

In contrast, the ways in which the “elected” regimes mobilize sovereign agency do not quite follow this pattern. If you allow me to use an oxymoron, I would say that the AL/BNP’s exercise of sovereignty seeks to stay on the plane of an “institutionalized decisionism.” By this term, I mean the political prioritization of executive decisions over the objectivity of law in the discourses (and practices) mobilized by our political parties. Para-legality, violation of laws etc. are not threats, but rather the means through which they operate. Look at the current state of affairs: the government prefers to confront the opposition party on the street, even though the crowd for them now is identified with party cadres. The AL leaders, especially the active ones, like to repeat again and again: “AL math chharbe na” “we will not leave the street.” This is in marked contrast from the politics of managing crowd with the legal forces. They seek to manage the crowd qua crowd i.e., they prefer to counteract the oppositional crowd by way of conjuring up another crowd. This is what distinguishes our contemporary form of governance.

The flying kick photograph, I agree, contradicted the individuating attempts of the Emergency regime. It stood for the impossibility of governing the unruly crowd, janata. If there’s any way we are to make sense of the smooth transition from the Emergency regime, we’ll have to take account of the 2007 event that punctured the hope of erasing anomic agents and abruptly destabilized the legitimacy that the Fakhruddin regime garnered (and this janata of 2007 came into being independently of the political parties that were identified as the source of all problems by the civil-military imaginary). You’ve persuasively laid out the contours of ideological construction of the crowd/people as picture-thinking agencies. From Madison to Le Bon to Hippolyte Taine, the crowd is certainly theorized as the glaring other of reason. These theories seek to liquidate something that they cannot utter: the crowd/people are sovereignty claiming and enacting agency too. The people of 2007 event were not only protesting against the regime. They were also questioning the sovereign power that symbolized the military as the sacred center.

Whatever might have been the intention of the Dhaka University students who could not accept the authority of the military, the clash ultimately amounted to the perennial problem: who are the sovereign? The students who stood for the people or the military that signified law, order, and certain morality? This constituent power of janata got triggered at the very moment when the Emergency regime appeared to successfully excoriate its disordered presence [for an exploration of the theme in a different instance, see this article]. Tellingly, the Emergency regime refused to acknowledge the crowd as the crowd. They took up an impossible project of identifying the actors, deploying immense resources to single out the ones who desecrate military personnel and vehicle. Why did they resist identifying the crowd as the crowd? This might have to do with the distinct conceptualization of the crowd in our post-colonial imaginary where janata invokes certain instantaneous legitimacy.

Political rhetoric in Bangladesh, cutting across the political spectrum, barely denounce janata (unlike, say, the American politicians who never shy away from criticizing the mob), at most they censure hidden “miscreants” among the crowd. We do not even have a parallel word for “mob” or “crowd” in Bangla. Dictionaries translate them by adding the qualifier “unruly” before janata. In other words, janata is an entity whose unruliness is inextricable from the legitimizing power it holds. The article, among other things, has captured this particular dynamic at play in contemporary Bangladesh with insight and rigor.

Nusrat Chowdhury teaches Anthropology at Amherst College. Nazmul Sultan is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at University of Chicago.

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