[Reader-list] Re: Problematizing Definitions, exploitation and 'toil'

anant m anant_umn at yahoo.co.uk
Fri Dec 23 08:41:20 IST 2005

to take solly and prem's ( and in a tangential way,
chari's work)  further, 
i think in recent times, proxying for the subaltern
has become a hazardous business ( re. prem's remark
about how proxying involves some of the myths
constructed through portraiture).  i can think of many
instances in hyderabad but perhaps the most dramatic
crisis of both proxying and portraiture was seen in
zahira sheikh's spat with Teesta setalwad and CJP last
year.  zahira, for those who may not be familiar with
the case, was the girl from a small town near baroda
who became very important not only to teesta but to
secular NRIs world over because of her claim that she
was eyewitness to the ghastly burning down of best
bakery. (not insiginifcantly, zahira's brother had a
hindu wife and one of the looters that night was a
muslim and all of them are small town poor). when
zahira recanted and accused teesta and cjp of having
capitalized on her testimony to advance their own
interests, it was a traumatic event for all of the
metropolitan secularists spread all over the world.
anil dharker was the most eloquent in vocalizing the
confusion: "Who, or what, is Zahira Sheikh?" he wrote
in his column. "Is she victim, heroine or mercenary?
It's a tangled story, so she could be all of these at
different times, or some of these at the same time...
But if her case is confusing, it's only because
everything that happened in Gujarat in February-March
2002 is topsy-turvy."
Actually there is enough evidence to argue that the
confusion was largely of metropolitan secularism to
which, Zahira was meaningful only as    "victim,
heroine or mercenary." If she defies the place
allotted her, the most charitable explanation we could
come up with was that the poor girl must have gone
crazy (some indeed suggested this possibility).  But
what if we were to take her seriously ? What if her
initial claim that she was eyewitness to the incident,
 her subsequent recanting and her accusation against
Teesta (and CJP) were all a way of negotiating a
security for her life and livelihood to which the
Hindu right and the secular middle class were equally
a threat ? 
Zahira's claim that she was eyewitness to the incident
was challenged from day one by her sister in law,
according to news reports of that time.  But, we
refused to take the sister in law seriously at that
time because it would undermine our crusade for our
secularism. And then, when zahira accused teesta (and
CJP) of capitalizing on her evidence, we pretended
that she was talking about CJP  receiving slush funds
and thus again refused to take it seriously. there
were other ways of reading zahira even at that time:
what if she meant that  you guys are globe trotting
because i am obliging you by playing the role of the
victim.  so why should i be undertaking these
hazardous bus and train journeys and be uncertain
about what will happen to my life after this is all
over. such an assumption would have require us to
engage with her very differently. but instead we got
righteously indignant. the cjp kept telling her that
she has to fight this "for her own sake and for her

dharker moves unerringly: 
"Zahira stayed in Mumbai happily for a year, moving
freely, even making three unescorted trips to
Vadodara. But just before she was to testify in court,
came her volte face, turning her erstwhile friends
into sudden foes and her erstwhile foes into
protective friends. Her new "friends" now give her
"protection" of the kind chief ministers give their
captive MLAs before the head-count to prove their
"What compelling reason made her do a complete
flip-flop, so much so that she has earned the wrath of
her community and her neighbours in Vadodara have
burnt her effigy? We don't have to be rocket
scientists to figure out who are the potential
beneficiaries of her changed testimony. But her
advisors have probably miscalculated: How much
credibility does Zahira have now? And they have
overlooked the brave workers at the Bakery who have
already testified, given eye-witness accounts of the
horrific happenings and identified a considerable
number of the accused. "

But it is the conclusion that Dharker arrives at that
is the most significant:  "You cannot expect NGOs to
do the job every time. In any case, isn't the delivery
of justice an essential duty of any government? Even
with a Congress-led government in Delhi, there has
been no change in the attitude of either the home or
the law ministry, no sense of urgency in pursuing the

In this vacuum, do we then need an autonomous
organisation, which is well-funded and dynamically
led, which can suo moto take up cases anywhere in
India? It will need to be flexible in its approach,
taking the initiative when it can, cooperating with
NGOs when it can't. It will need access to an
independent investigative agency (like a new, improved
CBI). And it will need the clout to stop state
agencies from interfering in its cases. Sounds like a
lot? It probably is. But who will deny that we need
something like this?

Dharker doesnt tell us to whom or what will such an
autonomous organization be accountable. One can only
hazard a guess. To middleclass righteousnes or to use
the more appropriate sanskrit expression: janagraha! 
So what does this tell us about the city ? I think it
tells us much, if we can carefully trace the ways in
which this entire drama played out between baroda,
gandhinagar, bombay, london and new york and how the
past was invoked and the renewed vigor with which
gandhiji was being claimed by the secular metropolis.
to me the most moving image in it was  yasmin,
zahira's muslim sister in law trying to clean the
bakery and establish a tenuous claim on it while
explaining the family politics to a visiting
journalist. but perhaps that should be another thread.


--- solomon benjamin <sollybenj at yahoo.co.in> wrote:

> Hi,
> Spurred by this interesting discussion, I join
> reflecting on two recent events. First, in the
> recent
> past, encountering (After Santos) a world famous NGO
> in India's most famous metro! Second, a meet with
> the
> author and a quick read of a very interesting
> chapter
> "Can the Subaltern Accumulate Capital" Chapter 5 in
> 'Fraterrnal capital' by Sharad Chari (Permanant
> Black
> 2004). Both of these link to what Anant and Prem
> focus
> on, and particulary, the point of "Proxy" and
> 'Portrait'. From Chari, the difference between
> 'toil'
> and 'exploitation'. 
> With this, I want to return to Zainab's peice. This
> is
> not just in the people she talks to, but their
> location in metro context of intense contestation --
> in economy, in good locations, and access to basic
> services. Such contestations are shaped not just of
> "urbanization" but rather big bucks of the World
> bank,
> and some of the largest private gloablly connected
> capital. Located in this, are the Proxy and Potrait
> --
> a role now well funded within NGO circles who are
> close partners to big capital from being
> commentators
> on the side lines. And their location bang in the
> middle of such contestations is their ability to
> paint
> a picture of how people live and espicially work.
> The
> brochures set in the donor targeted glossy, potrait
> a
> "page 3 imaginary" of a future life style statement
> /advertisment! No problem if the mills get shaped
> into
> malls, we have it all there. And paralleled is the
> 'proxy' -- where one gains the ability to speak for
> the masses.
> Here I point to not just to the NGOs promoting
> new Lifestyle Statements, but also to those who
> perhaps equally distanced from the hidden voices,
> trudge a path of exploitation, and in doing so,
> remove
> contest of any substance.    
> It's here that in Chari's chapter 3 & 5 (and the
> book
> is highly recommended!) that we find 'toil' (rather
> than 'exploitation') as a useful way to unmask both
> 'proxy and potraiture'. Chari traces in a
> wonderfully
> deatiled way the organization and dynamic of work
> and
> in doing so, reveals a politics that sharply
> counters
> that of those who choose to speak on behalf of the
> masses and to hide away the complex locational
> contests which they assist and reward from the
> global
> big bucks.   And this is not just in India's most
> famous metro. It's got a parallel in it's other
> silicon valley (a read on the water privatization in
> Bangalore in the recent issue of Down to Earth:
> Here we have another globally aspiring NGO that is
> responsible for 'structured civil society
> participation'. I am sure Anant could pose similar
> examples from what he has termed as a 'contractor's
> city' now also on the global way. 
> With all this, Prems' list of useful questions find
> a
> distinctly important urban context.
> Solly     
> --- Prem Chandavarkar <prem at cnt-semac.com> wrote:
> > Let me - like Anant - stick my neck out in "the
> > presence of a whole 
> > bunch of cultural studies folks".
> > 
> > Was just reading Gayathri Spivak's essay "Can The
> > Subaltern Speak". 
> > Spivak examines philosophical production, such as
> > Foucault, Deleuze and 
> > the Subaltern Studies Group, who seek to unmask
> the
> > workings of power in 
> > order to reveal voices that are typically not
> heard.
> >  While such 
> > analyses often start from a critique of
> > essentialism, they tend to posit 
> > other essences through the construction of
> > monolithic and anonymous 
> > presences such as "the workers' struggle" or "the
> > history of the 
> > subaltern".  And because these essences are
> > monolithic and anonymous, 
> > they involve the erasure of individual identity. 
> > Therefore any attempts 
> > to speak for the subaltern eventually construct
> > representations that 
> > erase their identity.  It does not matter whether
> > this comes from the 
> > activist philosopher or from the organic
> > intellectual who has risen from 
> > the subaltern ranks.  The organic intellectual
> > destroys his/her status 
> > as a subaltern by attempting to represent the
> > subaltern.
> > 
> > Spivak draws a distinction between two forms of
> > representation.
> > 1. Proxy - the attempt to speak for, as in
> politics
> > 2. Portrait - the attempt to speak of, as in
> > philosophy
> > It is important to distinguish between these two
> > forms.  While proxy may 
> > appear to be more genuine since it demands
> > engagement (speaking 'to' the 
> > subaltern, and not just speaking 'of'), it should
> be
> > realised that the 
> > myths and beliefs constructed through portraiture
> > affect the basis on 
> > which choices of proxy are made.
> > 
> > All this ties back to the point Anant made - when
> > Zainab interacts with 
> > the woman and child some meaning is produced, but
> > when she reports it to 
> > this discussion group the woman and child are
> > excluded and we now are 
> > aware of two different languages operating, and
> > immediately wonder which 
> > one is more authentic.
> > 
> > So returning to the question "what constitutes
> > culture?" - we must first 
> > ask if the question is worthwhile.  To ask the
> > question at all implies a 
> > belief that it is answerable, which in turn
> involves
> > an assumption that 
> > culture has already occurred in an observable
> > fashion.  This assumption 
> > immediately pushes culture into the past (it does
> > not matter whether 
> > this is the immediate past of yesterday, or the
> > remote past of history). 
> >    And culture is most alive when it is in the
> > present, when it is 
> > actually experienced.
> > 
> > So rather than asking 'what is culture' it is more
> > worthwhile to ask:
> > 1. What is the basis on which claims to define
> > culture operate, 
> > intersect and compete?
> > 2. What are the politics, myths, beliefs,
> > genealogies and spatial 
> > practices that underpin the construction of such
> > claims?
> > 3. What are the traces we leave in space that
> > eventually accrue into 
> > memories and symbols?
> > 4. What are the conversations and intersections
> that
> > take place between 
> > tacit experiences and explicit definitions of
> > culture?
> > 5. (Most important to us) What is the complicity
> of
> > the intellectual in 
> > all of these processes?
> > 6. How can we individually use such critique to
> > construct our own 
> > ideology and ethics?
> > 
> > Prem
> > 
> > 
> > 
> > anant m wrote:
> > > hm. i hope i am not making an ass of myself in
> the
> > > presence of a whole bunch of cultural studies
> > folks. 
> > > i think it is better to think of a geneology of
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