The Greek dramatist Sophocles knew that slain warriors presented rulers with challenges as well as opportunities. The action of his play Antigone, first performed in 441 BC, is driven by the disparate treatment accorded to two dead combatants. The nearly 2,500-year-old tragedy feels contemporary enough to have been adapted by a number of modern writers. Jean Anouilh’s stripped-down play, also called Antigone, opened in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944; Stephen Spender’s Creon toured India in 1989 after its London debut the previous year; and Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes was published in 2004 with the Iraq war still fresh in people’s minds.
At the start of Antigone, a civil war has just concluded, with two warring brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, having killed each other leaving the throne to their uncle Creon. The new king declares Eteocles a hero to be buried with honours, and Polynices a traitor whose corpse is to be left to scavengers. Jean Anouilh’s version accentuates the arbitrariness and cynicism of Creon’s choice, having him call the brothers “a pair of blackguards, both engaged in selling out Thebes”. He informs their sister Antigone that wounds made it impossible to tell the two men apart but, needing a martyr and a villain to satisfy the rabble, he picked the “prettier” corpse as Eteocles.
Defying Creon’s command, Antigone buries the corpse of Polynices, sparking a conflict that will claim her life and those of her betrothed Haemon (who is Creon’s son) and Haemon’s mother Eurydice.
War has always had a public relations element, in which images of the dead play a part. Governments manipulate these images to steer citizens toward a desired end, whether belligerence or conciliation. As a rule, the majority of media outlets support their nation’s government up to a point. That point was crossed in Vietnam, where graphic photographs of death and injury turned American opinion against the war. Subsequent American administrations curbed the freedom of journalists on the front lines, using soldiers’ right to privacy and the pain of their families as an excuse to sanitise war reports.
India has faced two massive tragedies in the past 15 months, and the government has treated the dead rather differently in each case. Though nothing like Creon’s handling of Eteocles and Polynices, the contrast is startlingly evident.
On February 14, 2019, by a suicide bomber in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district killed 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force. The bodies of the victims, including that of Naseer Ahmad who lived in Kashmir’s Rajouri district, were flown to Delhi where they were received by the Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The tricolour-draped coffins were placed in a hangar for a ceremony attended by the chiefs of the Indian army, navy and air force, top Union cabinet ministers, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Television channels broadcast every aspect of the event, right from the landing of the plane carrying the soldiers’ mortal remains. A donation drive for families of the fallen soldiers collected crores of rupees, and the Indian cricket team broke precedent by wearing camouflage caps as a tribute during a one day international shortly after the tragedy.
On June 15 this year, 20 Indian army men died fighting Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, on land claimed by both countries. Rather than being brought to Delhi with the same pomp accorded to the Pulwama victims, the bodies were transported to Chandigarh and sent on to the soldiers’ home towns and villages, after a wreath laying ceremony. While the deceased were treated with customary honour, raising their profile in the Pulwama manner was obviously judged by the administration to be devoid of political benefit.
Pulwama had taken place in the run-up to a general election viewed by most as being challenging for the ruling party. In retrospect, it appears that polls probably underestimated the support Narendra Modi commanded even before February 14, 2019, but he leveraged the terror attack masterfully to increase his party’s vote share, leading the Bharatiya Janata Party to its first standalone majority in parliament, and the highest seat tally achieved by any party since 1984.
A third take on the politics of corpses comes to mind with respect to Modi, one that did not concern soldiers and took place when he was chief minister of Gujarat. On the morning of February 27, 2002, an altercation at Godhra station escalated into an attack by a mob of Muslims on the Sabarmati Express, which was carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, site of a controversially demolished mosque. The attackers set alight coaches of the train, killing 59 passengers.
An administration focused on maintaining peace in the wake of the atrocity would have conducted funeral rites discreetly to prevent sentiments from being further inflamed, and prevented images of the charred bodies from being captured and disseminated, something relatively easy to do in the pre-smartphone era.
Instead, the remains were placed in the care of the general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Jaideep Patel, who held no government post and had no family members among the dead. They were taken to a hospital in Ahmedabad and laid out before a throng. Not long after, funeral parades of identified victims wound through the city’s streets, accompanied by angry sloganeering.
PC Pande, police commissioner of Ahmedabad at the time, and by no means a critic of Narendra Modi, testified before the Justice Nanavati commission appointed to probe the Gujarat violence that he was against transporting the bodies to Ahmedabad given the “tinderbox” atmosphere, but was helpless since the decision was taken “at the top level of the government”.
Modi’s opponents thought the havoc of 2002 that claimed hundreds of mainly Muslim victims was his Achilles’ heel, but it turned out to be more like Achilles’ impenetrable armour. It established him as a man who would defend Hindus to the hilt, made him a national figure, differentiated him from equally competent BJP chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and laid the foundation of his rise to the most powerful office in the land.