Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Against forgetting: About Sirajunnisa

Against forgetting: About Sirajunnisa
Sirajunnisa was just an 11-year-old kid, hailing from Puduppalli Street of Palakkad district. She was shot to death while she and her sister were playing in their courtyard (while their neighbor, Muhammad, was watching them play).

“I want dead bodies of some Muslim bastards”
-Raman Srivasatava, then D.I.G of Kerala Police

Remembering martyrs is not a novel act to the political public sphere of Kerala. For the longest time, Kerala has been a witness to aggressive political contestations and consequent physical acts of violence. Most of the violence, which has been planned and executed by R.S.S, since they’ve yet to solidify their electoral presence in Kerala despite their widespread presence across the state. The victims of the violence, mainly from the cadre of CPI(M), are often commemorated through various speeches and acts. The images of the martyrs are further reproduced through various mediums- visual, verbal, and textual- on occasions of political mobilizations and are even the causes for some of these mobilizations and other counter-violences. Most of the names of these martyrs are familiar since they occupy so much of the public spaces, from local bus stops to village libraries, as a constantly standing memory. In short, Martyrs occupy a specific space in the political public sphere of Kerala through the constant reiteration/reassertion of their ‘martyrdom’.

I think it should be from this premise of the politically sensitive geography of Kerala that the question ‘Do you remember Sirajunnisa?’ should be asked. I can assure you that most of the replies, instead of a stern yes or no, would rather be a skeptical counter-question; ‘who is Sirajunnisa?’; Sirajunnisa was just an 11-year-old kid, hailing from Puduppalli Street of Palakkad district. She was shot to death while she and her sister were playing in their courtyard (while their neighbor, Muhammad, was watching them play). The political situation of Palakkad was tense after the Ekta Yatra led by B.J.P leader Murali Manohar Joshi reached the state. The police were in charge of suppressing the tensions which arose in reaction to the strong communal venom spread by Sangh Parivar along with the Yatra. The Puduppally street was calm and quiet when the then A.S.P B. Sandhya came to assess the situation. She informed Raman Srivastva, the then D.I.G, that the situation was under control and no police action was required. However, Raman Srivasatava ordered firing at the ‘Muslim bastards’ to ‘let them die like dogs’. He shouted to another officer through the Walkie talkie: “I want dead bodies of some Muslim bastards” and ordered him to shoot the girls down at once.

The order was promptly fulfilled. The bullet pierced through Sirajunnisa’s nose. The police didn’t stop there. They brutally charged whoever came in their way to take the body of the child to a hospital. The instances that followed the murder were horrendous. The officers including Srivastva were protected by their successive governments despite occasional legal interventions. The police even went on to charge an F.I.R in which they alleged that Sirjunnisa, an eleven-year-old child, led a group of people and persuaded them to burn the houses and shops of the Brahmin neighborhood! It was only in 1999, almost nine years after her murder that she was acquitted from the charge of being a ‘rioter’. While on the other hand, the killers were still enjoying privileges of power. Raman Srivastava was later promoted to the post of IG and then to DGP in 1999 by the then chief minister Oommen Chandy. Currently, he is the special advisor of Kerala Police.

This is the (hi)story of Sirajunnisa and her bullet-ridden body, still ‘inadequate’ to qualify as a ‘public memory’ in the political public sphere of Kerala, despite some small political mobilizations led by a few minority political formations. Talal Asad, a notable cultural anthropologist remarks that he is amused by the fact that the “modern states are able to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability. He mentions also about “the ingenuity with which so many politicians, public intellectuals, and journalists provide moral justifications for killing and demeaning other human beings. What seems to matter is not the killing and dehumanization as such but how one kills and with what motive. People at all times have, of course, justified the killing of so-called enemies and others they deem not deserving to live.” When we place this Asadian understanding of state violence in the context of Sirajunnisa, the major question in front of us would (should be? Idk idk be the factor that makes (the) others deem lives like Sirajunnisa as not deserving to live. When we analyze further, we can understand that the identity of a ‘Muslim’ is the factor that? made the life of Sirajunnisa, otherwise, just an eleven-year-old child, ‘a life less than a life and a death less than a death’ as Agamben would say. It is very hard to ignore the thirsty cry of Raman Srivastva for Muslim bodies as a ‘spontaneous’/ ‘abnormal’ reaction given the situation. Rather, it was the cry of a thirsty post-colonial state which has? been constantly giving space to the consistent propaganda towards the minority community since the inception of the state through various (un)official methods and mechanisms, and which had been associating/collaborating in the pre-planned, engineered violence orchestrated against the minorities from Nellie to Delhi. Sirajunnisa’s body, among many other bodies across the nation-state which got violated, mutilated, and killed, stands out for it was forgotten too effortlessly by the ‘public memory’ of the state of Kerala, which otherwise is very ‘conscious’ and ‘sensitive’ towards martyrs and martyrdoms.

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Raman Srivastava

The judicial after stories that followed Sirajunnisa’s murder demands attention since it’ll help us to develop our understanding of the idea of law and justice. The unending demands and pleadings, though from a small group of people, ((still manifests in various forms of minor political campaigns through digital and non-digital platforms emphasizes the idea of ‘justice’)). Franz Kafka, in his parable “Before the Law” from the work ‘The Trial’ writes about the story’s protagonist who is forced to wait before the gate of law for his whole life. The gatekeeper, whose only purpose seems to be to bar the man’s way, keeps him sitting on a stool just before the gate. Kafka tries to conceptualize the working of law through this parable. Justice is what is promised by law; it is the possibility of justice that keeps the citizens, whose lives are bound by the institutions of law, subservient, and patient. In this hope, the protagonist spends his life waiting for justice that never arrives. He continues to wait as an obedient, faithful servant of supreme authority. James Martel observes that ‘the law can itself be said to be a product of our expectation for justice’. Although the protagonist never gets the advantages of law in its fullest sense, it nonetheless constantly regulates his life. Kafka, in his other works too, shows us that death is what acts as a separator, from this otherwise inseparable optimistic illusion of justice. For Sirajunnisa, it took more than nine years just to prove herself innocent before the institutions of law, even after her death. Thus, our empty demands for justice, which are always unavailable and unobtainable for most of the marginalized minorities in this state, fall into the trap of the same optimistic illusion of ‘order’ and ‘progress’, while the reality tells us an entirely different story. But at the same time Nevertheless? (not sure, not at all but), the emphasis should be on forming affective political bonds and communities instead of an outright cancellation or an act of dismissal, in order to create ruptures in the hegemonic structures of power which is otherwise emotionless on injustices faced by marginalized minorities.

It is against this historical-political background, the question ‘what is the politics of remembrance?’ should be asked. It’s not a question about what is getting remembered and who is getting remembered, though that’s a major part of it. But the centrality of this question, I think, lies in understanding who is capable of reproducing the same violence through remembrance. The subject here should possess enough power, both cultural and political, to do so. If he/she doesn’t possess that kind of power, (S)he would be incapable of reproducing the same magnitude of violence through the act of remembrance. The possible result of this failure would be an erasure from the public memory, or intentional, selective amnesia. Some martyrdoms are celebrated for they are capable of reproducing equal or extra violence. Those who can’t, are simply forgotten and eventually, ignored. It is therefore important to ‘remember’, because memory becomes an important political act in an age in which memories, memoirs, and monuments are not only forgotten but forcefully erased. But at the same time, it is also very crucial to think about the various articulations/formations of resistance informed through claiming ‘memory’. Unfortunately, in most of these claims, memory works as a stagnant-aestheticized object detached from the historical discourse. Though contestations can be made on the trustworthiness of the historical discourse, it is very important to resist the ‘sloppy ‘hypostatizing of “Memory” that glorifies it and makes it a therapeutic alternative to historical discourse’, as Lila Abu Lughod observes. She warns us not ‘to romanticize memory as “the repository of alternative histories and subaltern truths” but instead to attend to the processes of remembering, the fashioning of personal memories, the strategic silences, and those experiences, like sensory recollections or itemized lists, that cannot be put into narrative form’. Thus, claiming memory, by politicizing the domain of aesthetic since aesthetic is also a critique, and by asking rightful claims from the normative, flawed historical discourse becomes a solid political act.

Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed, a graduate from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, is an independent author and researcher.

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