Thursday, November 02, 2006

The pictures

(updated below)

I usually do not participate in the partisan slugfests that keep occurring at regularly scheduled intervals in the Indian blogosphere. Not because I am against alienating people from either side 'cause seriously, I couldn't give a fuck, but because I do not owe allegiance to any ideology in particular, and so, I find it hard to agree with anybody's views in their entirety on any particular issue.

But not this time. This is what happened. Shivam Vij posted pictures of the Kherlanji massacre of a Dalit family on his blog. The pictures included a graphic photograph of the raped and murdered girl containing partial nudity (or so they say, it has since been removed). This led to a number of people writing horror-stricken blog posts condemning Shivam's "lack of respect for the dignity of the dead" in posting these pictures and accusing him of trying to attract hits and attention through this medium.

Confused claims that pictures need not be shown and that wisely selected words should be enough to make people realize the horror of the crime. I disagree. Pictures are everything. Pictures put a face to the victim who would otherwise have just been a statistic. The actual sight of violence and bloodshed perpetrated by man on his brother / sister makes all the difference in overcoming the sterility of the printed word. The tremendous power of pictures in shaking people from their apathetic stupor is the reason why the Bush administration has banned pictures of coffins arriving from Iraq. It is also the reason why each time the American media depicts the violence and death occurring over in that blighted nation on screen, it causes the warmongering community consisting of Glenn Reynolds and his band of Bush cultists to protest about "liberal media bias". And it was the poignant sight of a Michael J Fox swaying uncontrollably on television as he pled for public support towards stem cell research that caused people to take notice and changed a whole lot of minds. Pictures are much more powerful than words and that is a fact.

Enter Gaurav Sabnis. He embarks on a blogpost with a couple of assumptions he peddles as fact with everything that follows in his post depending upon those "facts" for their meaning. Fact number 1 : Shivam is an attention-seeking journalist-whore. Fact number 2 : Shivam merely fakes his concern for Dalits and given a choice, he would not think twice before selling their mutilated bodies on the internet. No evidence is provided to back up these "facts". Once these "facts" have been reported as fact, whatever he says later becomes impenetrable to refutation because of his fundamental preconceived assumptions regarding Shivam's character.

However, the fact (without the air-quotes) is that there exists considerable evidence that contradicts them. Anyone who is remotely familiar with the Indian blogosphere should know that Shivam has been an activist for the Dalit cause for quite some time, as he explains on his blog. Which is why unless someone actually provides me with some evidence to the contrary, I would give Shivam the benefit of doubt in this respect.

Secondly, Sabnis, as well as other members of the anti-picture brigade claim that posting these pictures strip the dead of their dignity and that we should respect the privacy of the dead.

What does that even mean? What dignity? Dignity is a quality that lives and dies with a living being. Once you die, along with your clothes, wealth and silicon implants, you also leave your dignity behind. Whose dignity are we then protecting?

And let's say, if you actually did continue to possess dignity after you were dead, wouldn't your dignity be better served by raising awareness about the crime that was perpetrated on you, about the people who raped and murdered you who might get away scot free in the absence of a public outcry against their deeds? Wouldn't you feel that way, if it were you who were the victim?

Why, then, is Gaurav Sabnis foisting his own ideas about post mortem dignity on the dead? Isn't he kind of, you know, stripping away their dignity by doing that?

And before Sabnis asks me that question, yes, if it were my mother or sister who were raped and killed in that manner, if the government were not to come to my assistance, if my story were to be killed by the media, yes, fuck, yes, I would like their pictures to be plastered all over the media, over the blogosphere, dignity and privacy be damned. In fact, I would even be willing to pay for people to spread the word, just to raise awareness, just to get justice. And I would like my prime minister and every member of his cabinet to wake up and see those pictures first thing in the morning. I would like the nation to be ashamed of what its citizens are capable of. And that is me speaking for myself, not for the family of the dead, unlike Sabnis.

Sabnis then writes a follow up post defending his earlier post, which he nonchalantly begins with the sentence : "Shivam Vij has removed the naked picture." Nice job missing the point. That single sentence does more to illustrate the problem at the core of this business, namely, confusing violence with pornography. Sabnis sees the picture as that of a dead naked woman whereas the entire purpose of putting up the picture was clearly to showcase the savagery inflicted upon the woman and not the fact that she was missing her fucking top. Bizarre.

Lastly, I want to point out Sabnis' sentence in his later post where he says

"I found Shivam Vij's post distasteful, and conforming to the cheap attention-seeking, shock-inducing standards that seem to prevail in the Indian media nowadays."

Contrast this with Sabnis' attitude a couple of weeks ago towards a brother of the so-called Cartel who wrote a post containing the following literary gem :

"I think Tejal should set an example for the rest of us in ‘depreviledging’ systems by opening access to her arsehole. Everyone from Thakurs to Dalits to whites to blacks to barnyard animals to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants should be able to enter it at will. I see no reason why everyone should be a have-not when it comes to anal sex with Tejal, especially when she herself has the ability to make everyone a have."

And Sabnis' comment on this post?

"This is the best post ever. It is a splendid illustration of the sanctity of the owner’s rights over his private property. Unfortunately, many people do not have the capacity, willingness or maturity to grasp the succinctness of Aadisht’s argument."

So, to recap, Shivam's posting of a picture of a raped woman on his blog in a post condemning the rape equals a manifestation of the "distasteful, and conforming to the cheap attention-seeking, shock-inducing standards" prevailing in the media.'s post, critiquing a commentator using penetration of her arsehole as a prop, on the other hand, equals the best post ever written and anyone who would criticize all that talk about arsehole penetration (a living person's arsehole, by the way, talk about being a pro-dignity crusader) lacks the maturity to grasp the intricate argument that nestles underneath. Oh, the hilarity.

Note that I am not offering any opinion about utilizing shock value to raise awareness on an issue 'cause God knows I have indulged in it myself. However, I do find someone objecting to "attention seeking" and "shock-inducing" in one case while glorifying it in another kinda strange.

But ultimately, all this ongoing bullshit will continue to be bullshit. People will continue to get offended by controversial pictures while losing the actual point that was being made. Other people will continue to lose sight of the point themselves while getting diverted into defending those pictures. And meanwhile, atrocities will continue to be committed, reported upon and forgotten.

Update : It appears to me that anyone who has an opinion on this issue needs to first ask himself the following three questions :

1.> Do you hate Shivam?

2.> Do you doubt Shivam's motives in posting the pictures?

3.> How do you feel about posting such pictures in general?

If you answered yes to the first two questions, you should probably not bother asking yourself the third question, which actually happens to be the most important question of all. Unfortunately, most of who have commented on this issue so far have concentrated on answering yes to the first two questions and assumed that this automatically answers the third question. That is kind of stupid.

Update II : Here's Shivam's entire article for Tehelka of which the pictures were a precursor.

No comments: