The Inadequately Violent State?

Curator's Note

In this clip from A Wednesday (Neeraj Pandey, 2008), Naseeruddin Shah portrays a "stupid common man" who takes the law into his own hands, planting bombs in the city of Bombay in order to protest the Indian state’s impotence, its inability to guarantee the safety of the ordinary citizen.  This is not a new film, of course, but it remains provocative on many fronts.  In the first place, it’s interesting that the actor "representing" the Indian citizen is a Muslim with a long and distinguished acting career in both Indian theater and films.  He is known for his intense roles in art films and in the parallel cinema, but also in commercial films.  This is not the only film that poses the question about who can be a "representative representation" of "the Indian."  Films such as Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) similarly strive to remind the public that Muslims also represent the Indian citizen. Still, the manner in which A Wednesday makes its point is unusual.

The film seems especially interesting because it presents a direct and explicit challenge to the state as having failed to exercise its monopoly on state force in order to protect the "common man" or citizen, and simultaneously to assert its sovereignty. This failure, A Wednesday’s protagonist seems to be saying, has in turn forced the  representative, indeed exemplary, patriotic common man to resort to force in the place of the state.  The forceful protection of the nation-state’s sovereignty is taken up by the citizen.  Such a rationalization has a superficial, not to say meretricious, plausibility.  It stirs nationalist sentiment even as it points up the nation-state’s weakness in failing to avail itself of just violence to quell unjust violence.

Another intriguing aspect of the clip from A Wednesday is the canny turn on the discourse of "stupidity,"  the championing of stupidity as the token of ordinariness and therefore of authenticity.  As Nietzsche would have said, stupidity is on the side of life.  In  the case of this ordinary man-turned-terrorist, stupidity is certainly a plea on the side of life but a plea enacted by a threat against it, against other ordinary citizens of India.  It is a profoundly self-contradictory stance, and a dangerous "logic" seems to be in play here.  But clearly it isn’t just play.  The logic is probably appealing to a lot of ordinary people who might well feel, especially after the recent Bombay bombings, the kind of threat referred to in the clip.  They might find this stupid terrorism a representation of their own hard-to-acknowledge urge to remind the state (in a way that will shake it out of its apparent inertia), of its responsibility to exert its sovereignty and protect its citizens, with force if necessary.

Many groups within the national body have registered their complaints against the state for its failure to protect all of its citizens.  One recent case in point are the Indian Maoists, some of whom carried out an ambush againt the security forces in Chhattisgarh on April 6, 2010, killing 76 soldiers.  But not all the criticisms of the state’s failure to protect the citizens are articulated in the same form or from the same ideological location:  whereas the Maoists are waging local wars at the sub-national or sub-state level, A Wednesday  seems to articulate a frustration against an impotent nation-state in the name of the universal citizen.  This "in the name of" inverts the figure of the Muslim as terrorist, recuperating the minority citizen-subject as the representative representation of the majority citizen-subject.

Naseeruddin Shah’s righteous angry citizen in A Wednesday seems the more remarkable if we contrast this figure with a character involved in a more recent controversy featuring another Muslim "Shah"—Shah Rukh Khan, often referred to as "SRK"—in My Name is Khan (Karan Johar, 2010).  In that film, SRK, one of India’s best known actors, plays an autistic young man (Khan) who wants to travel to America after 9/11 to tell the President that he is "not a terrorist."  The film was interpreted as an attempt to re-humanize Muslims (often demonized in the Indian public sphere).  The film divided the public along what looks like the "secularists"-vs-"anti-secularists" faultline, with many of the usual suspects on the right expressing displeasure with the cultural icon and many on the left defending him as promoting universal secular humanist values embodied in a minority citizen doubly marginalized as autistic and as Muslim.

But in the wake of the film’s release SRK stirred an even warmer controversy by criticizing the authorities for failing to select any Pakistani cricketers for the Indian Premier League.  The Shiv Sena, the Hindu right’s militant wing, protested SRK’s remarks vehemently, seeing them as confirming his pro-Muslim (and therefore, in their minds, anti-Hindu and anti-India) stance.  Again, SRK was defended by some left-leaning diasporic South Asians, groups such as SAHMAT, and many in the film community (Preity Zinta apparently tweeted that SRK was "the most secular and fair guy" she knew).  At first SRK spoke out defiantly, most notably in a BBC interview.  But in the face of mounting negative publicity, the actor had to bow to pressure from the Hindutvavadis and issue a partial qualification of his initial criticisms.  Once more the right won a battle by fanning patriotic emotions among the public.  Ideological battles, even those fought in the cultural sphere, are won or lost on emotional terrain.

The "autism" of SRK’s character, possibly a conceit borrowed from Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988), and the "stupidity" of Naseeruddin Shah’s character are both intended to elicit a visceral or emotional sympathy and thereby insulate the characters in question from criticism, even as they criticize the failures of the state or sub-state bodies.   But this strategy of "insulation" appears to have been deployed more effectively by the actor with the "common" touch in A Wednesday.


Randy Nichols's picture

Articulating the State

It’s interesting that the State seems to boil down in these cases to a binary position of too violent or not violent enough.  That loss of functional identity is startling in its implications. In a recent course, one of the discussions was about the function of the State in the economy, and it was surprising how minimalist the role allotted to the state was.  Losing not just the middle ground(s) of State function, but the broad range of function creates a troubling vacuum.  I’m curious whether the films you mention start to place those options elsewhere when the State is seen as failing its obligations? 

Samir Dayal's picture

Articulating the State

Randy, thanks for your interesting comments and questions.   To your first comment, indeed it is almost as if there were a law of the excluded middle in operation: the state can only be too violent or not violent enough.  An "adequately violent" state would seem to be either Machiavellian or non-democratic and therefore not deserving of respect.  It is, to put it plainly, paradoxical to speak of an adequately violent state.  But that would seem to be the position of the thinkers I had in mind when I was writing this—Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben.  If I understand them (and I may be wrong), the sovereign state must exercise a measure (an "adequate" measure) of violence to assert its sovereignty.

Since statist governmentality abhors the vacuum you speak about (the absence of a broad function of the state), it fills it by regulating biopower, by discursive manipulation of legal and other instruments and institutions.  In the films in question, to answer your final question (and I am suggesting this  in my final paragraph of the original curator’s note), something else also seeks to fill the vacuum: the "logic" of emotion.  Both the protagonists appeal to the emotions because they don’t want to come across as merely agents of violence against their fellow-citizen-subjects.  The state (the Indian state in A Wednesday and interestingly the American state in My Name is Khan) responds benignly to these exceptional actors  (I mean actors who occupy exceptional positions, not that they are exceptional thespians) because ultimately they are "sympathetic" characters.  The protagonist of A Wednesday is emotionally sympathetic because though just a "stupid common man" he is acting in the interest ultimately of the nation and his fellow-citizens and is therefore also Everyman.  The protagonist of My Name is Khan is sympathetic because he is autistic, like the Rain Man in the film of that name played by Dustin Hoffman, and he acts to bring Americans together in a kind of mass altruistic orgy during a Katrina-like flood—he catalyzes a collective action that ennobles Americans and therefore tugs at their heartstrings and simultaneously makes Indians proud.   In both cases and throughout, we are reminded as it were sotto voce, that the two protagonists are also Muslims.  This is a subtext, I am suggesting, that is politically laden.

Thanks again for your note Randy—I’ll have to think more about whether there are real "options" offered by the films.  Sorry that I could not find clips with subtitles in the commons.  I didn’t want to rip dvds with the English subtitles, so I posted the best clips I could find.

English Words

What I did not understand about the film’s plot (until I read it on IMDB) is that the "Common Man" has not simply set up bombs to target innocent citizens in Mumbai; the bomb threat is in order that the the four militants be released from prison so that he might murder them.   

The State had already done its part – not in protection, obviously, but in punishment by locking them in prison.   The Common Man — demonstrating blood-lust or frustration – seems to imply that the State is not violent enough in its execution of justice. And the Police Commissioner chooses to let this “common man” go free at the film’s end, implicating himself in this vigilante justice.

But can the State really protect against terrorism? The power behind terrorist attacks lies in the leverage it possesses due to its covert and unsuspecting nature.

I realize that your larger point is that A Wednesday offers a Muslim actor/ character engaging in his own form of terrorist violence in defense of the common Indian citizen, and the film thus works to counteract racist attitudes toward Muslims.  My question is why are the words “stupid common man” and “cleaning house” in English instead of Hindi? Do they carry greater weight in English?


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