Opinion

Why 200 people did not see a dead Muslim teenager on a railway platform in North India

The police cannot find a witness to the murder of Junaid on Thursday. Both citizens and the state have become blind to injustice.

On Thursday, 15-year-old Junaid was stabbed to death on a Mathura-bound train from New Delhi. He was traveling home for Eid with his brothers and two friends. A dispute over seats resulted in a group of men repeatedly assaulting and stabbing Junaid and his companions. The assailants flung their bodies onto the platform at Asoti railway station. A crowd gathered. At some point an ambulance was called and two bodies were taken away. Junaid is dead. His companions are in critical condition. While one person has been arrested, the police investigations are running into a wall of social opacity since they have been unable to find a single eye-witness to the incident. Of the 200-hundred strong crowd that assembled on Asoti railway platform on Thursday evening, the police cannot find one person who can say what they saw.

The police cannot find a witness because something very peculiar seems to have happened to those present at Junaid’s death. A report by Kaunain Sherrif M in the Indian Express provides specific details. When asked if he had seen anything that evening, Ram Sharan a corn-vendor whose daily shift coincides with the killing, said he was not present at the time of the incident. Two staffers who were sentby the station master to investigate were unavailable for comment. Neither the station-master, the post master or the railway guards saw the event they were present at.

In this startling piece the journalist reports how the public lynching of a Muslim child becomes a social non-event in contemporary India. He shows the reconfiguring, and splitting, of a social field of vision. He reports all the ways in which people – Hindus – did not see the body of a dead Muslim child that lay in front of them. The Hindus on the train managed to collectively not see a 15-year-old Muslim boy being stabbed to death. Then they collectively, and without prior agreement, continued to not see what they had seen after the event. This is the uniquely terrifying aspect of this incident on which this report reflects: the totalising force of an unspoken, but collectively binding, agreement between Hindus to not see the dead body of a Muslim child. Hindus on this railway platform in a small station in north India instantly produced a stranger sociality, a common social bond between people who do not otherwise know each other. By mutual recognition between strangers, Hindus at this platform agreed to abide by a code of silence by which the death of a Muslim child can not be seen by 200 people in full public view on a railway platform in today’s India.

Beyond Gujarat

If this has happened, we are far beyond the Gujarat pogroms, perhaps because the logics unleashed at that time have reached their final denouement. In 2002, we saw the clasped hands of a Muslim man pleading for his life from armed Hindu mobs. In 2017, there is nothing to see and no one to see it. One way to read this public blindness is as the breakdown of a social contract in purely descriptive terms – that of recognising the body before you as being one to whom fundamental social obligations (such as the protection undertaken by adults towards children) are owed as a result of membership within the social body. The Hindus on this railway platform did not believe that any fundamental obligations, indeed even the most basic as an acknowledgment of his (dead)existence, were owed to Junaid.

I emphasise this one social relation – that between adults and children – because its public disregard usually occurs in those situations (such as warfare, pogroms, genocides, lynchings) when social bonds have come asunder. When some adults refuse to see some dead bodies as dead children (the Holocaust, slavery), it means that the persons these children would have grown up to be are not deemed worthy of living on into membership in the socio-political order. The affective alienation by which a gathered crowd of Hindus can lynch, break, stab, tear into pieces a Muslim boy, and then not see what is left, is because these Hindus do not think Muslims belong in the social body.

Yet this analysis goes only so far because something much more terrifying seems to have occurred: not the breakdown of a social contract but the production of a new contract in today’s India, one from which all Muslims, even children, are now affectively felt to be outside. In this case it is not simply that those present did not intervene to save Junaid and his friends from harm. This is common in India. Most people do not stop to intervene or help in a violent situation because they are scared. We should cease lamenting the indifference of “the Indian public” and ask instead what forms of obligation to strangers can exist in a society as radically unequal as ours.

In this case then, it is not that those present were indifferent to the public lynching of a 15-year-old Muslim boy. They were not indifferent at all. Rather they made a collective agentive decision to abide by a common sense to not see the public savaging of a Muslim boy. The blind wall behind which Junaid’s body lies reflects a positive action on the part of the Hindus present to collectively agree to refuse him the most basic recognitions humanity (that is the force by which humans recognise each other as sharing a common being and bond) demands.

Broken bonds

What are the social logics revealed on the Asoti platform? What is the nature of these principles of willed unseeing to which the ordinary Hindus on Asoti platform seem to hold?

Anthropologists identify a fundamental organisational logic of human society, that of mutual exchange. Humans living in society, i.e. in a social order, enter into relations of exchange with other humans also living in society. Thus persons are those with whom one trades, barters, goes to war, enters into ties of mutual obligation and marries. Sometimes under extreme social torsion, the principle of inter-social and inter-subjective mutuality breaks apart and certain groups are ejected out of the socio-political order. The force of the social as mutual exchange is withdrawn and they become humans with whom one does not marry, trade, go to war (since even warfare assumes negotiations) or exchange food, even what they eat ejected from the category of the edible. One does not respect their dead, revere their gods, nor recognise their marriages.

In such circumstances these persons occupy a frightening new location in the social order. Towards such persons (prisoners captured in warfare, slaves, pacified populations), the forms of mutual exchange that undergird full membership in the social order are no longer operative. Instead another principle of social differentiation and interaction takes over- that of the hunter and the hunted. Social forms descend into bloody spirals of violence as former exchange partners withdraw social relations of mutuality and obligation. There is no more talking (the exchange of words), no more selling (the exchange of goods) and no more love (the exchange of kinship).

Hunting minorities

Such a notion may seem archaic, out of the pages of a yellowed structuralist text which once excelled in tracing the social logic of hunting and warfare in “non-state” (acephalic) societies. But we can discern the operations of this logic in modern polities. The hunting of black bodies that accompanied the conquest of Africa, the genocides that accompanied the founding of modern America and Australia. And a brief look at the bloody political history of the 20th-century shows us what happens when a hyper-nationalist militarised majority (the Sikh pogroms, Nazi Germany, Kosovo) begins hunting minorities. We saw the intimations of this logic – this experiment with open violence as a means of terrorising Indian Muslims and Hindus into expelling Muslims from the national socio-political body in the Gujarat pogroms in 2002.

At that time, what struck and horrified a watching Indian public in this hyper-mediatised pogrom was the intimate and perverse nature of the violence directed at Muslim bodies. The rioting Hindus in Gujarat did not simply kill Muslims: they dismembered them with swords and knives. Pregnant women were ripped open, unborn fetuses thrown on fires. Mass rape was accompanied by mutilation. The organic desecration of Muslim places of worship. North India is today Gujarat, except now the ruling dispensation does not need to incur the expense of a full-blown pogrom since its organising logics are abroad in the social body. Its operations can be discerned in the myriad ways in which vigilante Hindu meṅ are spreading across towns and villages in north India hunting Muslims for sport.

To return, we can and should locate this blindness of ordinary Hindus in the historical narrative we now know of the ascendancy of the Hindu Right as a social and political force in modern India. Yet the historical arc is what social scientists would call a necessary but insufficient explanation. Necessary because it is from out of this that what is coming will come. But it cannot explain the form it is taking- the peculiar horrifying quality by which non-pathological sane people cannot see the dead body of a child. Something more fundamental seems to have broken in today’s India.

Field of invisibility

As we have come to expect with the Narendra Modi regime and the national blindness it is imposing on the country, the central government has also refused to see Junaid’s body. The eyes of the state which see almost everything else did not see Junaid’s body as it lay on the platform and once it had been removed. The statements by functionaries of the state on what they did not see are instructive. Om Prakash, the station manager, managed to not see what was by his own admission a “huge crowd” gathered 200 metres away from his office. The two guards he sent to investigate this crowd which he himself could not see also did not see anything since by the time they had arrived 200 people had vanished. Bhagwat Dayal, the Post-Master, managed to be in two places at once and at none of them did he see anything: from his office he asked a railway officer to call an ambulance, while at the same time he was at home “relaxing”. And indeed the CCTV camera – that technology of unmediated sight normalised in public consciousness by the security state through the long decade of the 2000s – has by dint of being damaged no vision to offer.

A field of invisibility in which it is impossible for Junaid’s body to be present is thus constructed through public agreement between the ordinary Hindus on this railway station and a state apparatus that has earned the necrotic distinction of blinding 1,200 people in Kashmir within the past year. The ordinary Hindus at this station eschewed the use of their own eyes and turned them towards the purposes of the blind state.

From a purely social scientific viewpoint, if we do not today as a society attend to the symptoms that reveal the ascendance of a logic of war against its own people incarnated within the social body, we are heading to mass slaughter. The public messaging by the current regime, and the silence of ordinary Hindus, has been well diagnosed by journalists. The Bharatiya Janata Party regime currently holding state power in the Sovereign Socialist Republic of India has declared through acquiescence, commission and omission that it is open hunting season on Muslims and Dalits.

The lessons

Two conclusions follow:

1) We are in a radical breakdown of the rule of law in BJP-ruled India and in these regions mob rule now obtains. We are in the terror days of state supported goondaraj.

From which flows the second conclusion:

2) On June 22, 2017, the Republic effectively ended. India is no longer a secular constitutional republic but on the precipice of being transformed into a majoritarian state ruled by an ethnic and religious majority. The hunting of Muslims and Dalits in today’s India should concern every right-thinking Indian because it demonstrates a prowling consuming violence aided and abetted by the Narendra Modi regime leaking through the social body. As all our public institutions erode under increasing assault, as the space of public discourse and exchange is vitiated through threat, coercion and open violence, we are teetering on the edge of becoming a country in which children are not safe on the trains. A country in which people run scared of what their neighbours think they are eating, and armed thugs patrol small town streets hunting young lovers.

The body of 15-year-old Junaid, the broken body of a young Muslim boy that ordinary Hindus chose to un-see, shows India the shape of things to come. We are 1.3 billion people spread over one of the largest contiguous landmasses in the world. Imagine the scale of social violence, what it will consume, what will be left, what can escape, once it begins. We should prepare for the future being put in place for us.

This article first appeared on Kafila Online.

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