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In Post-1984 India,
Why Two Hundred Ordinary Hindus Did Not See A Dead Muslim Child On A Railway Station






On 22 June 2017, 15-year old Hafiz 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 Asoti railway platform. 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 eyewitness to the incident. Of the 200 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 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, Sharan said he was not present at the time of the incident. Two staffers who were sent to investigate by the station master 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 – all Hindus - did not see the body of a dead – Muslim – child that lay in front of them.

The Hindus on the Asoti railway platform 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.

If this has indeed happened, we are now 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 recognizing 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 stress 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 shared 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 recognize each other as sharing a common being and bond) demands.

What are the social logics revealed on 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 organizational logic of human society, that of mutual exchange. Humans living in society, i.e., in a social order, i.e. in a rule-governed 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 recognize 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).

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 twentieth century shows us what happens when a hyper-nationalist militarized majority (as Pritam Singh points out below, India’s anti-Sikh pogroms, Nazi Germany, Kosovo) begins hunting minorities. We saw the intimations of this logic – this experiment with open violence as a means of terrorizing 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-mediatized pogrom was the intimate and perverse nature of the violence directed at Muslim bodies. The murdering 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 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 organizing 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 Extremist 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.

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 normalized 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 1200 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 our 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 BJP 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. 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 goonda raj. From which flows the second conclusion:

2) On the 22nd of June 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.

15 year old Junaid’s body, 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.


[Courtesy: Kafila. Edited for]

June 28, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Pritam Singh (India), June 28, 2017, 11:54 AM.

If one is looking for a chain to link the events connected to this phenomenon, the qualitative leap in post-independence India took place in Delhi in November 1984. Right in the capital, the centre of multi-dimensional power of the republic, more than 3000 members of a minority (adult Sikh men and boys) were slaughtered and burnt alive while their women were raped, and still the media and most intellectuals, even many liberal and left-wing, called it a ‘riot’. The party that organized the ‘riot’ won such a thumping majority in the parliament no previous formation had ever won. The country paid the price for that sin. It went further in 2002 in one of the regions (Gujarat) where another party behind another ‘riot’ won a stunning victory in the state assembly. The parties behind the two massacres were different but their victory had a common denominator - mass Hindu consciousnes, especially of 'upper castes'. That unifying feature has now grown into a monster symbolized by this horrifying murder and mass Hindu silence. Mass psychology of genocide is emerging (or is being prepared).

2: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 2017, 11:58 AM.

Fascinating to see how the author herself, Aarti Sethi, is oblivious of her own blindness while pointing out the wholesale blindness of her co-religionists. Not a mention of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, where it all began! A bit of self-examination would help her, I suggest, in really understanding the phenomenon she has so articulately reported. Her article is sad in that it's as if Sikhs don't even exist in India! [She does make a half-hearted reference to 1984 after commentator Pritam Singh pointed out the obvious elephant in the room - see comment # 1 above.]

3: Ron Murdoch (New York, USA), June 28, 2017, 3:32 PM.

Not only does the enormity of the other massacres and pogroms pale in comparison to what happened to the Sikhs in 1984 in India, and in the decade that followed, but if there had been ANY justice delivered then, the massacres, murders and gang-rapes that followed at the expense of non-Sikh Indians, including Hindus, could not, would not, have happened. Do we call them 'riots'? The wilful ignorance over 1984 by Hindu so-called intellectuals is a direct cause of the mass-murders that have since 1984 become commonplace in India. What I fear is that the Hindus don't have any inkling of the whirlwind they have already begun to reap.

4: Rup Singh (Canada), June 28, 2017, 9:11 PM.

"It is open hunting season on Muslims and Dalits." The author uses the word "dalit" as something acceptable and okay to use to refer to human beings. Normalizing the caste system? Should have not overlooked 1984 and also should have pointed out that all religious minorities are under attack in India. They are being physically harmed and through the rewriting of Indian history their accomplishments and uniqueness are being eroded. I wish the author could see that much of India's problems are because of the Hindu caste system, and the laws of the land being applied or not, as it's convenient for political leaders and their thugs. A country where people worship animals and happily consume their own bodily waste, it's future will be nothing but terrible.

5: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 30, 2017, 9:44 PM.

Things have come to such a pass in India that minority communities (Sikhs, Muslims and Christians) have to prepare their people for active resistance to organized evil generated by the majority Hindu community, whatever be the party in power in India, federal or state. Humanity needs to be saved from degradation. Killing a 15 yr old child on a passenger train merely because of his Muslim faith and then pretending as if nothing happened, is evidence of pure evil perpetrated by the adult Hindu passengers on that train.

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Why Two Hundred Ordinary Hindus Did Not See A Dead Muslim Child On A Railway Station"

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