Holding Power Accountable: Shuddhabrata Sengupta Interviewed by Rehan Ansari

A Raqs Media Collective member discusses politics, art, and not making art.

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A wooden bench in an empty gallery in front of a projected geometric abstraction titled, Undoing Walls, by Raqs Media Collective

Raqs Media Collective, Undoing Walls, 2017, projection, single-channel animation loop. Photo by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of the artists.

My friendship with Delhi-based Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective illustrates the challenges of borderization, using the term from the exhibition Worlds Without End: Stories Around Borders in which Raqs’s work currently appears. Twenty years ago I lived in Lahore, Pakistan, and was invited by Raqs to give a talk in Delhi, India, in the aftermath of the Kargil War. Shuddha read out my text for fear of reprisal against me in Pakistan because it was a critique of nationalism in Pakistan (nazarya e Pakistan). Though the text was available online under my name, Shuddha was correct about how structures of power, even those of rival nations, view dissent. On another occasion post-9/11 when I traveled to Delhi to write on the garrison state in India and how the Indian parliament attack of 2001 was being used to create a war on terror, Shuddha helped with introductions to civil liberties lawyers. Back in Lahore, a college withdrew their teaching job offer after the Pakistani equivalents of Homeland Security intimidated the dean saying, “Don’t offer Rehan a job; he travels to India.” 

I recently spoke with Sengupta about his multifarious roles during the remarkably creative and non-violent Delhi protests that happened last winter—centered at Shaheen Bagh and led by Muslim women—against the blatantly majoritarian new citizenship laws of the Modi regime and the violence it employs to suppress dissent. 

—Rehan Ansari


Rehan Ansari What is different about these protests and the regime’s response?

Shuddhabrata Sengupta You and I learned from Pakistani and Indian contexts to view power as overt and protest as subversive and hidden. We knew fear. This time around it was the opposite. The protests were public, demonstrative, and created public art. Protestors wanted to be identified. It was the police who did not carry identity badges, and right-wing goons would not identify themselves. Also, I remember the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. This time around our networks went into action within an hour of the anti-Muslim riots. There was communication, and people managed to physically reach places. Fifty-three people were killed, and I tell young activists it could easily have been five thousand. In 1984, it took ten days after the atrocities to go to the camps of the victims and start the documentation process.

RA What is it like for you to be involved in the protests as witness, investigative journalist, commentator, essayist, ethicist, provocateur, enabler of whistleblowers?

SS I am a little exhausted all the time. It is a strange time when everything piles up, and now there is COVID-19. You deal with everything, every day. It forms a tough scab on your emotions. At the same time, never before have I had as much hope. I used to feel I was the only person saying and writing certain things. Now there are large numbers of sharp and sensible people who are relentlessly keeping their eyes on things. I feel much less on edge than I did in the early 2000s, even though things are in some ways much worse. It’s a paradox. But I feel I can share certain responsibilities. There are things that I have a certain amount of practice in doing: I can read numbers quickly, see what is not said by officialdom, and have an ability to patiently piece things together. For example, I follow every name of every person who has been arrested as reported in the media. If, of the fifty-three people who were killed, thirty-seven were Muslim, how is it that seventeen Muslims were arrested and four Hindus? You have to just go through all the reports and capture each name like you were catching fish. This I can do, so I do it. Then others make use of that analysis. I was looking very carefully at what was happening at the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, my alma mater, because I knew very early what actually happened there with the police attacking students. So I was just waiting for the police to open their mouths. With practice, and they give you lots of opportunity, you learn their playbook. And you just wait for their next move with your next move having predicted their next lie. 

RA Is there one term that captures what you are doing, all the roles you have taken on?

SS Accountancy (munshigiri). Someone has to do that. Make an account and holding people accountable.

A wooden bench in an empty gallery in front of a projected geometric abstraction titled, Undoing Walls, by Raqs Media Collective

Raqs Media Collective, Undoing Walls, 2017, projection, single-channel animation loop. Photo by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of the artists.

RA You are seeing these attacks on democracy and a heroic defense of democracy. The stakes are high. Are you thinking about making art? 

SS I have written a text for CARAVAN about what making art in these times has been like for younger artists. I am not at the protests as an artist, but as a citizen. I have always maintained that in Raqs’s practice we should refrain from making art out of such urgent situations. If I were to make art out of this, then I wouldn’t do the other things that I think are much more necessary. I see myself more and more in this crisis as someone who is listening, dreaming, and seeing things being written on city walls, pieces of paper, and signs, hearing the many things being said. So, I am the person who is recording what is being written and said. That’s my job right now. Having said that, ideas are gestating. I am learning that the term “citizen” is not something frozen in time. It unfolds. All the grandmothers and granddaughters that were out protesting taught me that. You become a citizen through the network of relationships and solidarities that you build with friends, with kin, and with strangers. Citizenship is essentially something to process and produce, not something that gets fixed to you by a date. There are very long-term philosophical implications of this understanding. Citizenship is always a not-yet-done thing. Participation in a society over time produces the claims of citizenship. I have not had an opportunity to understand this with as much clarity before. Naturally, this is going to affect the way I think about aesthetics, about notions of belonging and acquiring relationships to place and time. A lot of Raqs’s artwork involves mathematics and biology, and this new thinking will affect the way we understand numbers and life processes. 

RA The right wing habitually labels the dissenting Indian Muslim and others as “Pakistani,” telling them to “go to Pakistan.” The Delhi protestors used Pakistani poetry, that Urdu poetry of resistance to dictatorships, as public art. Was that gesture successful in turning the rhetorical tables?

SS Absolutely. Two Pakistani poems became nothing less than anthems of the movement: Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “We Shall See” (Hum Dekhenge Ge) and Habib Jalib’s “This Regime I Will Not Accept” (Dastoor). And, yes, Indian Muslims now own the tri-color (the Indian flag) by waving it around and singing Pakistani poets. There is no longer a contradiction in doing so. I was very moved by the nineteen-year-old woman in Bangalore who held the Indian flag and yelled, Long Live Pakistan; then she said, Long Live Hindustan. When she was asked why she said Long Live Pakistan, she answered, “What sense would it make to say Death to Pakistan?” The right wing does not know how to deal with this reality. She is not a Muslim and has no family connection to Pakistan. This young generation’s forte is speech. They goad each other: go and speak to power! They become little celebrities in their neighborhoods.

A wooden bench in an empty gallery in front of a projected geometric abstraction titled, Undoing Walls, by Raqs Media Collective

Raqs Media Collective, Undoing Walls, 2017, projection, single-channel animation loop. Photo by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of the artists.

RA Twenty years ago the Pakistan-India wall seemed impermeable to us. What changed?

SS Something is happening that is unlike anything that has happened in our time. I am in touch with these young radicals who take part in organizing protests, and they watch Pakistan very keenly. They picked up a song from the women’s march in Islamabad this winter entitled “We Are the Revolution.” It became a hit in India! The words were understandable from Urdu to Hindi, barring one or two. I translated the script from Urdu to Devnagri. And Pakistanis are watching these events in India. 

RA What do you make of this Muslim identity that is becoming known for being lead by women, using poetry of protest, demanding universal rights?

SS It’s transformative. It is more and more apparent to me that for all of South Asia, leadership is going to come from women. As is being said, the revolution will come wearing tilak, bangles, and the headscarf.

RA How are you working with whistleblowers?

SS The Modi regime is also authoritarian within the BJP, its own political party, and people are angry. On December 15, I knew that the Delhi police had gone inside Jamia’s library and attacked students. On December 16, I was on campus at a meeting asking for the CCTV footage. It had disappeared. Exactly two months later it reappeared. I believe somebody inside the police released it, someone very upset with this regime. I put calls out on social media eliciting whistle blowing, and I receive tranches of documents, which I then pass on to people. 

A wooden bench in an empty gallery in front of a projected geometric abstraction titled, Undoing Walls, by Raqs Media Collective

Raqs Media Collective, Undoing Walls, 2017, projection, single-channel animation loop. Photo by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of the artists.

RA Will there be a necessity for relentless protest and relentless creativity to counter the fascists? And is the regime in trouble?

SS There have been twenty-one protest sites in Delhi, and I went to fourteen of them. Some would have a regular attendance of three thousand, some three hundred. The big one was Shaheen Bagh, but everyone else was competing for next in line. All of them were “variety shows,” rang a rang programs, and organized by nineteen- and twenty-year olds. At these protests, young people wear sashes around the waist: red silk bands or the colors of the Indian flag. The girls have a hijab-and-tights aesthetic, and the boys have very gelled hair. There is political speech, poetry, and serenading. I think this regime went too far. They shouldn’t have banned the rang a rang programs. Another failing tactic of the regime is conducting false flag operations of a spectacular nature and reaping electoral dividends. Officials within the regime are blowing the whistle. There was the arrest of Ravinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police of Jammu Kashmir who was driving from Srinagar to Delhi with militants. I am certain that this was a plan to create a spectacular “terrorist” atrocity in there prior to the Delhi elections. Singh is the same official who was the handler of Afzal Guru, framed for the Parliamentary attacks of 2001. Singh was also posted in Pulwama where there was the attack on Indian soldiers before the general election. In summary, I would say that this past winter the entire grammar of consolidated power has been shaken. Even this regime’s anti-Muslim violence was an admission of defeat.

Raqs Media Collective’s Undoing Walls (2017) is featured in Worlds Without End: Stories Around Borders at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin, until January 31.

Rehan Ansari is a Brooklyn-based writer who also works in polling for social justice organizations. www.oncueanalytics.com

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