In the beginning is the scream. We scream.
– John Holloway, Change The World Without Taking Power
It’s 4 am, a Delhi police walkie-talkie radio sounds incessantly in the living room of a one-bedroom government quarter. Switching it off even if not on duty is not allowed. It is therefore left at the farthest end of the outermost room to keep the children from waking up because it is a school day tomorrow. In fact not just school day but also unit test day.
The crackling noise of the radio is punctuated by the voices of several operators calling out to one another by their network names. ‘Alpha 9’, ‘ Gamma 4’, ‘Charlie 2’- “Ek vardaat hui hai”. An incident has occurred. This is invariably followed by police descriptions of violence. These descriptions are different from common people’s descriptions of violent acts. They are also very different from any newspaper or media report you will read or see. These are descriptions produced by those who have to ‘deal’ with what has happened.
“Ladki sadak pe payi gayi hai, uske paas se kagaz baramad hua hai/ Yeh keh rahi hai ki iske saath maar peet hui hai/ MLC karwaa ke area incharge ko itilaah karwaayi jayegi/ Over and out” (A girl has been found on the road, a paper has been recovered from her. She claims that she has been beaten up. Area in charge will be informed after her medical examination. Over and out.)
Recently during a conversation, a former police person told me, “The way we write an FIR is the way a doctor would write a prescription. Bina shor sharaabe ke/ Without too much song and dance.”
These banal descriptions of violence in the city, ‘without any song and dance’, was the aural backdrop of my childhood. My mother retired from Delhi police in 2011 and served for long periods of time in the Police Control Room and Crimes Against Women Cell. Her walkie-talkie was almost always on, constantly leaking a certain realm of the city into our formative years.
The Tilak Nagar assault
This somewhat buried memory of transmission came back to me suddenly when I saw a video that has left the country stunned.
A young man brutally assaulting a young woman in an empty office space. The murderous rage of this man is being filmed by his friend, not as a witness to a horrific crime but as an accomplice and well wisher, who routinely asks him to stop for his own good, even as he continues filming this shameful act. As the assaulter kicks the woman in the stomach, slaps her, drags her by her hair, lands blows on her body with his elbows, another man gingerly crosses the frame. He makes no efforts to stop the violence; in fact his body language is of an apologetic accidental photo bomber. He quickly moves out of the frame to keep the view of the camera unobstructed.
Along with this deeply disturbing video also emerged the details of its context. The assaulter was identified as Rohit Tomar, a 21-year-old unemployed man who had recently started visiting his friend Ali Hasan’s BPO in West Delhi. He is the son of an assistant sub-inspector working in the narcotics division of Delhi police. The woman being assaulted in the video is his former girlfriend, who had been called to this BPO office and allegedly raped by him shortly before he made this video.
Prima facie, there were two reasons for Tomar to film his crime. One was in response to the threat given by this woman that she would go and report her rape to the police. He believed that he could use these images as collateral to blackmail her against doing so. The second was in fact to threaten another woman, whom Tomar was currently stalking, that if she didn’t agree to marry him he would ensure that she too met a similar fate.
Tomar’s friend, who was the owner of the premises on which this heinous act occurred, has also been charged as an accomplice by the police and his father has been accused of criminal intimidation on the grounds that he threatened the woman to not press any charges against his son. Interestingly, this entire matter reached the police and the public via the woman whom Rohit Tomar had forwarded this video to as a warning. It has since been covered extensively across news platforms and is circulating widely on social media.
This is an image around which questions of gender violence, misogyny and police brutality all congeal. Shocking and banal at once, it is a familiar story. Toxic angry masculinity threatened by a self-affirming and sexually open femininity. The same men who find women’s bodies to be sites of pleasure and comfort are also repulsed and angered by them. Mutilation and desire go hand in hand. In another video that has surfaced since, Tomar can be seen insulting a woman by reminding her of his sexual history with him. On display is a naked power to tyrannise and humiliate women.
When I encountered this material, I felt like an ‘insider’ on two counts. The first, by the virtue of identifying as a woman, who has been faced with various kinds of toxic masculinities. The second, by being the child of a former police worker, like Tomar. Suddenly the smooth flow of power was interrupted and the images flickering on television felt like a signal from the transmissions of my growing up years. Unlike those non-dramatic descriptions of police control rooms, this video forced its way into people’s homes with a sense of urgency where every blow and every abuse is recorded and repeated. The obvious entitlement to power is a major part of this story, but there are other stories too that need to be connected to this one.
Bajrang Dal and Hindu nationalism
Rajesh Rishi, the MLA from Janakpuri, which is not too far from where this incident occurred, tweeted that Tomar was a member of the Bajrang Dal. Even though the Bajrang Dal has not yet contested this information, his purported affiliation has somehow disappeared from most subsequent accounts of Tomar and the crime.
The Bajrang Dal appropriates the name of Hanuman, but the values its stands for are a far cry from the humane qualities this idol has been traditionally associated with. This may easily be deduced from its logo. It uses a muscular image of Lord Hanuman (hailed for his celibacy) wielding the gada (a blunt metallic weapon) over the map of ‘mother’ India.
There has already been a dynamic public debate on the ways in which images of Hindu idols like Hanuman and Rama have undergone radical transformations under the shadow of a militarised right. Imbued with angry expressions, rippling muscles and sharper weapons, Hanuman’s revamped avatar from being Lord Rama’s ‘dasa’ to the conqueror (of the non-Hindus) is also an allegory of the changing political landscape of the country. As Inderjit Badhwar wrote in India Today as far back as 1986 “The new militancy is menacing, and growing in intensity. And the message being hammered home is the same: for too long, the minorities have been appeased and pampered while the majority has been restrained from asserting what it holds to be the only basis for unifying the country – Hindu nationalism.”
It is this kind of ‘menacing Hindu nationalism’ that is guarded by the roaring tiger of the Bajrang Dal logo. Lord Rama’s gentle guard and servant has no place in this frenzied rhetoric.
Further, three words on the logo seal this entire arrangement – Sewa/Service, Suraksha/Protection, Sanskar/Values. Incidentally even the Delhi police logo has three words on it Shanti/Peace, Sewa/Service, Nyay/Justice. Here two kinds of overlapping Sewa/Service collude to produce the likes of Tomar and fill them with anxiety about the possible relationships between men and women, between religion and nation, between culture and desire, between questioning the self and policing it.
Images and dehumanisation
The second part of this story is the video image. The ecology within which these images are moving is a world where they have become an extension of the body itself. The humiliation and debasement of a human life is complete once an image of its violation has also been made and circulated. It is a world where to just kill Qasim (38) and grievously injure Samyuddin (65) is not enough; where making images of their suffering is part of the process of dehumanising them. Connected to this is also the question of police collusion. Like cases in the past where the police has been exposed as working in tandem with violent forces, here too Ashok Tomar has been charged with colluding with his son. However, this is not just a simple case of a father siding with his son; it is a compact glimpse of the enmeshment of right-wing propaganda, unemployment, machismo, state power and technology. The further question to ask is how will this stop? How can we make public institutions and workers more accountable?
At a time when dissent or critique against the police, army, politicians et al is being stifled in the name of nationalism and national pride, the country runs the risk of being reduced to the flat, incomplete image of the Bajrang Dal logo, one in which those who should be held accountable to the public turn into weapon-wielding quasi-gods whose power will be both mythical and absolute.
Finally, on watching and re-watching the video, a strange detail jumps at me. The woman doesn’t scream or beg Tomar to spare her. She just keeps regrouping herself and standing up, again and again. Maybe at another time, I would have read it as absolute surrender, but in the current climate when images directly implicate us in the excesses and resistances of life, it is perhaps the moment at which things will stop and turn around. The missing scream of this brave woman implores us to save the likes of Tomars from themselves, men from masculinity, individuals from power and images from amnesia.
Pallavi Paul is a video artist and a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.