Saturday, June 16, 2012

Interview: Anshuman Singh "Hindu-Muslim and the Character of Indian Society"

(This interview was part of my thesis titled "Building of a Communal State in a Virtual World: Hindu-Muslim Relation Seen Through the Lens of YouTube and Facebook". I shared a special relation with Anshuman Sir. He was the one who introduced me to the aspects of society unknown to me earlier during my graduation days at Dyal Singh College. He is certainly a person who has an everlasting impression on this student!)

YouTube is like an ancient Catharsis, where one went to  theatre to get rid of evil emotions

: Anshuman Singh

Anshuman Sir

Anshuman Singh teaches English Literature at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi. He is a passionate speaker and loves discussing music, film and politics. Here is an excerpt of the interview taken on 29th of March 2012 at Dyal Singh College.

Question: Sir, what do you feel about the hate videos and content shared on the Social Networking sites?

Anshuman Singh: Any social networking site can be misused. You can share a lot of things there, but is there anything intrinsic in the act of sharing? There is a certain kind of technology which is enabling you to share things. Earlier people use to say you could not meet because there was no road. If there was some conflict then the conflict would take a long time to arise, because people would not be able to come to war with each other because of the bad roads. So being cut off is better than being connected. That is the position which many people would have and say about technology being responsible for many things. Technology is just an enabling factor. You can use mobile to send friendship messages, and also use it to abuse people. But the telephone is not to be blamed for that. In my view all kinds of people watch and use YouTube. It enables people to express themselves in a way which otherwise they would not have been able to do so. It’s like writing an online book and giving it free of cost. In a way people are able to give things to others without aide of the publisher and distributor. You can just make a small clip and go online. But it is likely that if you show something bad, more people will watch it. Then you ultimately end up talking about human nature, that human nature is intrinsically attracted to something evil, something bad, which is morally reprehensible. So whether there is technology or not it is bound to happen sooner or later. What technology does is that it allows you to come in contact with other people. But at the same time one can say that technology also hides a lot of things. For instance you can go under any name, you can make a video and claim that it’s you or somebody whom you know or do not know at all. So there is certain kind of anonymity in the use of such technology. You can be anonymous and be free.

Question: Isn’t it pseudo anonymity because if people want they can search and find out who is the person behind those acts?

Anshuman Singh: yes, but most people do not do it. People are lazy and do not like to get into somebody’s life.

Question: Is it because of the anonymity that people get this chance to say whatever they want to say?

Anshuman Singh: Yes! It is better to vent frustration on YouTube than vent frustration actually by killing people. Maybe YouTube is like the ancient catharsis, where people went to the theatre to get rid of the evil emotions. The people, say the fundamentalists, share something on YouTube and vent out their frustration. So are we safer with YouTube around? In fact you are aware that there are so many people who hate because of YouTube. They would have not been known to you otherwise. So it is better that YouTube is enabling us to know that such people do exist and they are not fictional. So when academicians talk about communal violence we are not talking fiction and people may come out of this illusion that it’s only some rotten politician who are misleading people to commit violent acts, otherwise we -the good human beings- would never do. YouTube is a good way to study the reasons for violent acts or violent feelings. And maybe through these kind of sites we can talk to them (the people who post hate content) and try to understand these behaviours; try to get reasons from them, and reason against their reason! Otherwise such feelings are bottled up. And one day when the occasion arises -people like Modi arrives- these feelings may find a horrible vent! They may result in riot and people may take part in actions which maybe they in saner moment they will find reprehensible. Maybe YouTube is like the ancient carnival where for one day you go mad! YouTube provides you with what we call letting off steam for some time. One has to see this kind of technology in high ambivalent way. It does provide space for venting such emotion. But should we not allow people to vent such emotion? That is the issue. I think such spaces should exist where people can vent only bad emotions, morally reprehensible emotions! If I feel hatred for somebody, I also need a space to express it. If these spaces are also not available, then can censorship be the order of the day? Does this mean we can only crush people and maintain sanity in the society through censorship? I would say no! Let people express themselves. But I will intervene at a point where an act of physical violence is committed. Say as a result of YouTube some people get violent and act. But the bigger question is against whom shall I act: the people who commit violent act or the people who have influenced them? Or should I act against the technology which has influenced those people? These are the basic questions that arrive. I can read Karl Marx and say Marxism means killing class enemies. So, should Marxist books be removed from the libraries? It is the same question. I would say no.

Question: I was surfing internet and in the search box I just wrote Hindu-Muslim. The first result it showed was ‘Hindu-Muslim hate’. What about this phenomenon? This means there are many videos on communal disharmony, although we talk a lot about communal harmony.

Anshuman Singh: It’s like the alternate way. The state is secular but the society is not. Earlier the state use to say that bad things are not there, that is some fiction that happened in some barbarian past like partition or even before. Let us forget our history. Our society is wonderful and Hindu and Muslims live wonderfully. They might marry only in their communities but still there is secularism. No Hindu will marry no Muslim but still there is secularism. You cannot have hybrids but still there is secularism. Both communities should remain in their water tight compartment, that’s secularism. Let us not come out of our ghettoized mentality, that’s secularism. This is state’s perspective. On the other hand is the reality quotient which says there is deep suspicion, deep hatred. What alternative media can do is to expose reality that what goes for Secularism is not secularism. There is lot of hidden hatred which gets expressed in the alternative media. A time might come when hatred might become official. Like Harry Potter’s last book where Voldemort takes over the ministry of magic and gives the slogan ‘magic is might’. The idea is that non-magical people have to be killed, like Muslims have to be killed, Jews have to be killed. Ghettoization of the people who are different from those who have the power. It might become the official ideology, but at present it is not. Secularism is. BJP can also not come openly and say they are fascists or non-secular. It might say that they are the real seculars, and others are pseudo-secular.

Question: Few days back, on the 10th anniversary of Godhra riots I shared a video from YouTube on my Facebook profile, Final Solution by Rakesh Sharma. And I received a message on my mobile from a random person. YouTube has this function to forward a video to somebody’s mobile if he has shared his number on the net. That person had sent me a video in reply to Final Solution. That was a Panun Kashmir’s video from Kashmir describing what really happened with the Kashmiri pundits in 1990s. And the message with the video was, “Brother, this is the other side of the story”. How do you take this when technology is creeping into personal life as well?

Anshuman Singh: That is correct. There can be a number of sides to a story. But to turn it to an ideology and use it against a large community, is the problem. There may be a video where it is shown two Muslims are beating a Hindu. That video exists as a fact. It also exists as an ideology of the guy who is beating the other person. But once uploaded it becomes part of a larger ideology that Muslims are violent. It only becomes an example of a truth whose veracity is already convinced. It’s like “Oh yes, of course I knew it and now you have the proof for it!” But if two Hindus are beating a Muslim and that is uploaded that might get a different reaction because the official ideology is that Hindus are non-violent and peaceful. That video might contradict the official ideology. At the same time the official ideology also circulates in the non-official world. The official ideology is that Hindus and Muslims are brothers and whatever; there is also another official ideology that Hindus have this wonderful culture of non-violence and all that, and Muslims have the culture of violence and imposing themselves upon Hindus.

You have to find out the roots basically. And then a video or picture or a poster might act as a confirmation of that ideology. That picture exists in its own rights. I am not saying that it must be wrong. It might be true. And it might be true that there are certain Muslims who are violent and certain Hindus that might be non-violent. But it is also possible that there are certain Hindus which are violent and Muslims who are non-violent. The other side of the story! But nobody talks about it! Why is that the other sides of the story always the same side for the fundamentalists? The other side is always that where ever there are Muslims there is violence, there are many children and they are always dirty. Nobody wants to find out why the dirt is there, why the Muslims are uneducated, why they are not getting jobs- the governmental and non-governmental, what is happening to this community as a whole? It is all right these days to cast an ideology to become legitimate. “The Dalits live in slums because they are forced by the Brahmins”. Now you can say that at least because the Dalit movement has risen to that extent that such a thing can be said without somebody saying “Oh, there is a other side of the story as well.” But the same thing cannot be said when a Muslim says we are uneducated because there is discrimination against us. When a Muslim says there is discrimination against us, then you say, “He always says this! When have we discriminated? These are communal minded people and they want to have reservation.” It can be because of the international movement against Muslims or Islam. Selective interpretation is very bad. Muslims are not violent. There are few people who are violent. Sometimes they happen to be Hindus, sometimes they happen to be Muslims. There is also a possibility that there is a link between a sense of injustice and your violent behaviour. For example, Germans were so violent after the First World War that fascism developed in Germany, because they were humiliated as a nation. Cult of violence developed there. In one sense the rise of Hitler and Nazism was because of the humiliation the whole country suffered. So YouTube can help in expressing this alternate world of hatred.

Question: Can YouTube and Social media be termed as the digital representation of the society?

Anshuman Singh: Yes, it can be. But society is a problematic word because we all are not ‘netizens’. Only a small cross section of Indians would be netizens. Not everybody can send or receive YouTube messages on mobile. It is definitely an alternate space where a small section of people- definitely not the non elite, but the elite, people who have access to internet and are educated and people who also have the space to think about issues apart from roti kapda aur makaan (food-clothing and shelter). The whole discourse is elite, I would say. It’s an elite space. I am not deleting or underestimating this elite space because it is emerging strongly. It is a better space than the official space- the government announcements, newspapers, economic surveys and so on. The official spaces are less authentic about the real politics of this country. You would not know what the elites are thinking if you read the official version. But YouTube will tell you more about what elites are thinking. But YouTube can also talk about other things as well, communal harmony.

Question: There are many videos on communal harmony on the cyber space. But people who subscribe to a particular ideology or who belong to a particular interest group come there and start replying to everybody who leaves a positive comment.

Anshuman Singh: You need to counter them actually. You have to counter the hate campaign with the other kind of campaign. You cannot be silent and say YouTube and Facebook has to go. That space is provided for people to debate, discuss and even accuse each other and beat each other up. Virtual is better than real!

Question: Can we use Social Media to actually tackle these serious problems of the society?

Anshuman Singh: It is difficult to answer that. There is a virtual mob on YouTube and on Facebook! That might be very disturbing, because on the streets it is possible to gaze reality more clearly than on YouTube, when you are secure. When I am on the street and the police is hitting me throwing water cannons, I might be afraid. I might run away. I might realise who exactly I am. But sitting safely in front of the computer, and participating in saying “to hell with these bastards” is another matter! Totally another matter! I remember when I have had fights with police during rallies, when I have accused and abused them I know how afraid I was. I was afraid that he might thrash me. One of my friends got hurt so much with the water cannon that he fell unconscious. And the water is so dirty which they take from gutters. You get itching on your whole body. Will the YouTube and Facebook generation understand this? But yes the YouTube generation also leads many people who have many grievances. Technology is alienating us as well as enabling. It can alienate you from political and social reality. You are happily online and that is it. You are connected and yet you don’t know who it is! Having so many friends on Facebook doesn’t really mean you know them as well. This is the new era, I guess!

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