There is a particular kind of photograph that appears so frequently in India’s newspapers that the grotesque nature of what it represents has become normalised. I saw one in a national daily just a few days ago. Where we should protest the medievalism of a contemporary practice, we merely pass over it as just another piece of news. This is perhaps because this genre of photography actually reflects deep-seated attitudes within Indian society. The lack of protest signifies the easy coexistence of a deep-seated atavism in society alongside the apparent modernity of the latest cars and communication technologies. I refer to the police-organised photographs of those arrested for a variety of crimes.
It is important to note that the so-called criminals in these photographs are not yet convicts, and their guilt has neither been argued in a court of law nor established. However, in contravention of every known social and legal norm, the media and the police collude in presenting them as criminals before they are convicted.
The photos have a set pattern. Usually, a semi-circle of police personnel, some in uniform and others in casual clothing, stand behind the apparent criminals who, most frequently, sit on the ground, heads bowed. Sometimes, their faces are cloaked with pieces of cloth. The officials look serious and satisfied and the so-called criminals gaze at the ground.
Oftentimes, it seems that the official group is made up of not just police personnel but sundry other participants, perhaps so-called good citizens who might have assisted in apprehending the accused.
Why do we not question the visual barbarity of the set-piece arrangement – a still-life Roman carnival of arbitrary bloodletting to entertain the populace – where the accused are presented as the guilty?
Why, in the first place, are such photographs allowed to be published? Who authorises them and what is their value in terms of either deterrence or prevention?
An ugly aesthetic
The photos are allowed to be presented because they are reflections of some of our most deeply held beliefs. Have you ever seen a photograph of this kind where the so-called criminals – those looking at the ground – are the well off? Is any doctor, accountant, academic or bureaucrat accused of murder or extortion subjected to the justice of the open-air police studio?
It is invariably those on the socio-economic margins of society who find themselves as objects of this ugly aesthetic of our times. But the ugliness is entirely within ourselves and lies in the firm belief that people are not equal in the eyes of the law.
In all societies, it is common that those with the resources to employ the best means of defence are the most likely to escape punishment for their crimes. Indian society is one that also holds to the principle that people of different means, if accused of a crime, deserve differential treatment. This is why the police and the media find it perfectly reasonable to present a socially outrageous practice as evidence of care for society. There is no outrage because we may actually be suspicious of democratic norms, thinking that arbitrary force is a better way of life.
The cult of the hero
There is another equally troubling reason for the normalisation of such images in the media. This has to do with the pervasive belief in individual heroism as a means to improve society, as distinct from giving serious attention to improving systems. This is perhaps because our systems have become so corrupted by the rich and the powerful that we have lapsed into the cult of the hero.
Our media is full of reports of the individual who, against all odds, takes on the system. Tales of individual valour against a corrupt system tend, however, to elevate unsustainable and sporadic action above the need to reform systems.
Unfortunately, however, we are a society that does not believe in systemic reforms that questions power. We believe in inequality and are deeply seduced by the charms of the powerful. The police personnel who pose behind the accused on the ground below them are merely representations of the heroic and powerful individual who will save society from evil.
A reflection of this is to be found in the system of out-of-turn promotions for members of the police force as rewards for certain actions. How often do we hear of police officers in, say, France or the United Kingdom, being offered out-of-turn promotions for actions in the line of duty? When heroism becomes a systematic exercise, systems become arbitrary. The photographs of the heroic police and the evil criminals are an example of such arbitrariness.
Our cultural beliefs in the heroic figure who will question the status quo exist alongside a deep commitment to the status quo. It is this contradiction that plays out in the police-media photographs: the hero saves us from evil by the arbitrary use of power where the powerless are unequal in the eyes of the law. It is the normalisation of such contradictions that lies at the heart of what afflicts us as a society.
Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.