The State and the Selfie: India and Slacktivism

The Monograph was originally published in Warscapes Magazine

Our thoughts, feelings, desires and actions are being robotized; ‘life’ is coming to mean feeding apparatuses and being fed by them. In short: Everything is becoming absurd. So where is there room for human freedom?”
                             Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser

“The selfie” is our constant, intimate-infatuated engagement with ourselves. It is immediate, ephemeral, and incessantly performative. The best versions of ourselves, curated, filtered, edited and displayed for the public’s consumption of our private desires. The pleasure of the selfie comes from the voyeur in us; as we watch the world respond to us through clicks, likes and affirmations endlessly retweeted and repeated. Here the id and the ego blurs.

To live in this digital universe is to experience and to evaluate the world, as a function of our desires, self-worth and anxieties through the gaze of the others. Here seeing mediates everything, it is not just the pout and the sucked in cheeks but also violence, grief, hate and bigotry that become a mimetic gesture.

Selfie with Daughter
Hashtag activism is based on the gaze and grievability. While the hashtag targets the collective, its final fulfillment is the “I”. It is about private pleasures and gratifications, and not about public goods or collective transformations. The hashtag #SelfieWithDaughter went viral, after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked fathers across India to post selfies with their daughters. The hashtag was originally started by a local politician in the state of Haryana to draw attention to his state’s uneven birth rates. After the Prime Minister’s call for selfies, people participated in the practice of tweeting and retweeting intimate and loving picture of fathers and their daughters. As these images traveled through the digital ecosystem, and went viral, their original meaning was subsumed, and they quickly became objects of a symbolic political narrative, largely intended for media consumption.

A year since taking office, the Prime Minister’s office has crafted a series of “organized spectacles” like the much publicized #AccheDin followed by #MakeInIndia, and #SwachBharatAbhiyan (Clean India Mission). His most grandiose production till date is the First International Day of Yoga, where he performed yoga along with a record gathering of 40,000 people. #Selfiewithdaughter is a political motif appropriated by a theatre state (Modi’s India) that is keen on the ritual performance of governance without actually governing. These public campaigns, are geared towards the country’s citizens, who witness “spectacle, ceremony, and public dramatization” at regular intervals.

The #SelfieWithDaughter hashtag is the collective harnessing of a nation’s desire to present itself in a favorable light, and a simultaneous exercise of political and social authority. It projects on to the world, a state of reality that is imagined, and not how it actually works. These images of paternal love instantly whitewash existing gender prejudices, its inequities, its unending violence against women, and our impotent legal system that orders women to reconcile with her rapist.

A year ago images of two young Dalit girls raped, dead and suspended from the mango tree, in Katra Shahadatganj village, Badaun, Uttar Pradesh went viral. These macabre images were endlessly retweeted, the tragedy trended, and then the noise was replaced by other inelegant noises. Yet a year later the inequality remains – constantly legitimized through social, economic and political arrangements. Women continue to inhabit amongst the triumvirate of caste, patriarchy and violence that continue to create a microcosm of everyday oppression. The failure of the viral selfie, the viral hashtag is the failure to perform a political function: the production of change. Virality of the hashtag is no metric for enduring social progress.

Late Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was “brutalized and burnt in his house” by violent Hindu mob in 2002 during the Gulberg Society massacre in Gujarat. Ehsan Jafri spent his final moments pleading with the mob to spare the lives of the women and children who had taken refuge in his home. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Special Investigation Committee concluded that his “provoking a violent mob” caused Jafri’s death. With efficiency, the systems maneuvered to seamlessly wash this blood clean from the hands of his perpetrators; the legal detritus buries unaccounted bodies and exhumable evidences. The judiciary, and the Special Investigation Committee produced orchestrated verdicts and exonerated State, and its apparatus and Modi was given a “clean chit”. The legal verdict and the committee findings have been rationalized and the conveniences of forgetting it, enumerated in abundance. The evidence of this violence, the weapons of extermination, and the men who carried these weapons exists, alongside the process of destroying the memory of this extermination.

When #Selfiewithdaughter trended Ehsan Jafri daughter Nishrin Jafri shared a picture of her and her father with the caption: “#SelfieWithDaughter: This one will haunt him for ever.”

How do we reconcile Nishrin Jafri’s agony, and her pain with the viral jubilation of #SelfiewithDaughter? Whose image of the State is narrated by this hashtag?

In Kashmir, the #Selfiewithdaughter campaign took a different turn. Kashmiris posted images of life, death and violence under occupation. Amnesty International posted an image of young girl with her father’s photo in hand. The caption read, “Daughter of Ghulam Mohidin Mir, disappeared by government forces has been waiting for her father for last 25 years.”

In another twist, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association criticized the #SelfieWithDaughter, she quickly became the target of verbal violence and online vitriol on twitter in the hands of Modi supporters. This hate and bigotry captures the self-image of Indian nation-state. A re-feudalized digital sphere, where violence is unleashed the moment a carefully curated collective deceptions are challenged.

Self Image of the Nation

The Nation is its self-image: The State, the Selfie. Like the selfie, the nation is the self we construct, it is how we posture ourselves, how we see ourselves collectively and mimetically. Like the selfies we produce, the nation’s self image does not mirror us, it does not reveal us as we are, it produces a reversed, distorted external image, and images encased in its own making. The Nation’s image is what its people believe, stories that circulate in its collective conscious, how history viewed, taught and reproduced, beliefs about nationhood and citizenship, and perceptions of its powers and limits.

Violence dictates and reconfigures the Nation’s idea of self, its sovereignty, the political, and the subject, it also sanctions the performance of violence that is yet to come. This performance depends on selective remembering, and enforced forgetting about parts of our history that continues to haunt our present. The convenience of forgetting the truths about Gujarat Riots, the Sikh Massacres, the Occupation in Kashmir, and the killings field in the North East is regularly enumerated.

What do we see when we turn the gaze inward, see ourselves and our “national self-image”?

Gujarat Riots, the Baduam Rape, #Selfiewithdaugther: a theatre state that performs rituals of governance, but does not govern; and countless other public and private violences – many perpetrated by the State, others sanctioned by it are all connected. At the heart of each violence is the dialectic between the images we consume, the words that dictate the context and the increasing depoliticization of our public sphere.

The Selfie, the State are linked, each mirroring the other, linked by gaze and grievability, visibility and surveillance, disposable bodies and grievable lives. In this mirrored existence, we need new conversations about the optics, violence, accountability, justice and responsibility in the age of visceral virality. Once the selfie is out in the networked world, we must ask what to do with this Other self we created.