Hell of a city
Feb 07 2014
Everyone thinks the other is evil, and goes to get him or her. It’s a very odd way to behave as humans. I grew up in this city, dreading its entrails of lewdness andhate. The parks and the ruins and monuments made up for the dread, and one was distracted by the flowers every spring, but the crimes committed in the city were too frequent to allow for any real acceptance of calm. One can imagine, that at one level there is a rhetoric that says people are free, and that they must avail the opportunities of being able to use the facilities the city offers, but at another level, the risks of being out there after 8 pm are just too huge. One family was told one morning, that the business men who had been killed in the night in an accident were theirs. Innumerable hit and run cases occur, and increasingly, murders of young people who are out at night.
The students from the north east are targetted because they don’t look like the other migrants to Delhi. The city of Delhi has its various layers, and in each there is a way of presenting oneself which is like a rule of the territory. Dress codes are like uniforms. When young men appear with sharp haircuts with peroxide tips, the citizens behave like they have been personally attacked. When these students, both men and women, have Sino features, the ghettoised citizens in these colonies, act as if these are enemies of the state.
As someone who is in her late 50s, I am expected to behave as if I were without any rights to my identity as a person. One instance of this is the mandatory dress code expected of me. One of the problems of “being a bad example” is that people actually imagine that if you don’t look like them you are “a bad example”.
Constantly there is pressure to conform, to look like the woman who sells washing soap across the different states speaking a dubbed language in each regio, but quintessentially the same middle class woman wearing a bindi.
This trope of sameness is ofcourse provided by advertisers as much as state policy, where citizens are defined only by their ability to negotiate with the administration. Tobacco and alcohol may be state regulated, but so are the advertisements which project cancer as a deadly disease. The benefits received by the state from taxes has to be represented through the manner in which privatisation works in order to keep the bootleggers at bay. The Bacardi ads with which a whole generation grew up as tv watchers meant that the totemistic nature of human life would be represented as a risk taking exercise in the urban jungle. The alcohol bottles lying in the streets in Kerala have to be seen to be believed, and even in Leh, alcohol bottles lie unclaimed in growing piles. In Delhi, the recycling of waste is perhaps more exact in where these bottles go.
Modernisation has not meant that people have left their traditional views on human behaviour aside. Each caste group, each religion, each class has distinctive ways of projecting their identity, and those citizens who break the laws such as beating up and murdering others, must be punished. Religious identity is a personal motivation, which is decided by the accident of birth and individual choice. To kill or beat up another because he/she is different in appearance is the most dreadful thing to happen in a city. Routinely people are beaten up our city, because the mob thinks they know best. At this rate, we in Delhi, will be no different from those who live in cities which are constantly patrolled, and there deaths occur without explanation or cause.
In JNU, where students have won the right to work in the Library through the night, giving social science students the same privileges as science students in their laboratories, the security staff are on patrol all the time. Yet there are robberies, occassionally, and an attempt to murder and a suicide, just last year in the school of languages. We obviously don’t have a closed entry system, since the bus comes in freely till late at night, and everyone is welcome to visit our campus. Monitoring and patrolling become symbols of a closed system, rather than a truly democratic one. What are people’s life chances regardless of the accident of birth?
Unless people believe and trust in one another, how can one have democracy?
The idea that people can round up on others and believe that these are criminals with intent to hurt and must be exterminated, seems medieval to the extreme, or fascist in the way Europe was in the 1930s. In that scenario, undermining institutions is not the answer, but legal remedies must be sought, before young people are sacrificed over and over in the name of something or another.
(Susan Visvanathan is professor of sociology in the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, and the author of Reading Marx, Weber and Durkheim Today)