Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reflections on the SIT Report

I am a sociologist intrigued by the language of violence, obsessed with the way people construct responsibility. I think the vocabularies we use are sometimes blinding. Every time I hear the word governance I shrink at the poverty of bureaucratic words. To understand corruption or murder one needs to elaborate them as performances and rituals. Greek drama had a wonderful sense of fate but modern drama needs a sense of responsibility, of choice, of the irony that banalization brings to violence.


Let us take the case of the SIT report. Its publication by some journals had one immediate effect. It broke the corridor of silence and the conspiracies of media which tried to argue that Modi was more sinned against. Media discourses around Modi seasoned with quotes from the diaspora or from the corporate dons acquired what one can call "media piety". It was designed to make people who were attacking Modi feel there was something inadequate about them.


Look at it not from the point of bureaucrats blocking the investigation but of the small group of activist fighting Modi. They are immediately reduced to psychological cases. The police officer Sreekumar's long battle against Modi is reduced to pique, to anger being denied a promotion. He is portrayed unfairly as an isolate. The idealism, the courage, the strength to withstand ostracism is never mentioned. Instead we attack the officers integrity, reduce him to an also ran in the "career of life". Sreekumar is portrayed as abnormal while normalcy is attributed to all the IAS officers feeding on extensions and incentives in return for the pledge of silence. One of the least investigated aspects of the Gujarat riots is the role of IAS officers, the mafia like silence followed by them. You can count dissent on your finger tips here. The IAS proved that silence is a commodity to be traded in the governance market. Apart from a few who opted for transfer, or confined dissent to their drawing rooms, it was the IAS that became the steel frame that protected Narendra Modi.


If the IAS was a sanitized entity, the cop was something out of Bollywood. The encounter death was a more tempting possibility, more open to melodrama, more Manichean in its exaggeration of good and evil. Actually the move was more clever. The battle was portrayed as one between dirty cops and dirty criminals. The information supplied on DCP Chudasama was Bollywood delectable. There is a folk ambivalence about it which hinges on two facts. Firstly with bad disposing the bad it is seen as a scavenging operation, a necessary evil. Secondly, the majoritarian view sees the ethnic as criminal deserving his fate. Rape and murder become clean up operations. Thirdly, the encounter death is recognized as an identified pathology of the police force and therefore finds to be separated from deeper societal trends. Its language gets sanitized to a weekend melodrama played out in a farm or a party plot. Or at the most it is a combing operation, a fallout between cops and criminals who otherwise live in mutual reciprocity.


What the report raises is the erasure of evidence or the neglect of certain forms of witness. Yet the erasure of evidence is almost seen as an act of God, an accident rather than a conniving act of collusion. In fact, if one were to look at the report as a study of governance, as an information system, five criteria are emphasized. The first is amnesia. Officers who usually can recite chapter and verse from any file to defend themselves have bouts of forgetting. Forgetting meets its twin in denial. Both can hide in the future comfort of silence. The investigation confronts erasure but worse, it often treats the statements of victims as noise. In fact it is not the facts that seem important but the effort to make truth look trite or irrelevant. Governance as an information system seeks to normalize and sanitize Modi. The only memorial to the 2002 carnage is in this monument of silence.


The investigation hints but dies not follow the importance of memory. Memory appears like unruly foliage which needs to be trimmed or pruned to convenience to make governance possible. Also the act of witness, the need to build testimony is seen as hysteria or obsession a paranoid needs to repeatedly tell the same story is constructed as an obsessive compulsive act. Look at the frequency with which media and politics apply the term hysteria to activist Teesta Setelvad. Setelvad's pursuit of justice will rank as an epic story of stamina and courage. But what does media do? It plays up the court reprimand of her for appealing to the UN as if the UN was an alien or foreign agency like the US senate or the CIA. Look at how her hysteria is magnified as she is accuses of being a grave digger, exhuming bodies. The nature of evidence is never considered. Any search for justice is by definition seen as paranoid.


The folklore of time hangs around the investigation. The argument now is if you cannot indict Modi, it is time the file is closed. Justice has a strange way of constructing the perpetrator as victim. Because the emphasis is eventually on the procedural, where facts are seen as positivist entities, the hermeneutics of evil is only a part of theology. Normal men are capable of genocide and a bureaucracy can create a normalization after it. The idea of "moving on", the logic of development are but variants of erasure that prevent the encoding of memory that justice requires.


Yet reading the report one feels as if confronting an act of puzzle solving which does not seek a total picture. It is like an act of filling blanks. But the sentences do not add up to a text. There is no sense of evil. There is a census of bureaucratic vices from delay to erasure to narrowness but what one misses is a sense of evil. The report is a construction of an administrative mind set by a bunch of senior clerks. Gaps in narrative are seen as clerical defects but there is no sense of outrage and anger, an expectation that decent men in a decent society behave in a certain way. The conclusion is anticlimactic, where the report diagnosis a cancer but insists that professionalism demands a remedy for common cold, saying that the erasure or absence of evidence precludes a prosecution.


Modi's men are contaminated but Modi goes scot free. In a paradoxical way the SIT report adds to the sanitization of Modi. If he cannot be prosecuted, the argument will go, the file is closed. Sometimes the sadness of democracy lies in the clericalism of law. The SIT has produced a report with a little bit for everyone. It is a pity that justice had to be content with such little morsels.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist.


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