State vs “Urban Naxals”: How Ghoul Reflects the Horrors of New India

Social Commentary

State vs “Urban Naxals”: How Ghoul Reflects the Horrors of New India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

T

he future is almost always past. The appeal of dystopian fiction lies in the distinct possibility of it coming to pass – or having already occured. George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depict a future we might be headed toward if we don’t mind our ways. But the reason Netflix’s recent horror offering Ghoul curdles my blood, is because there’s very little in there that doesn’t feel like a dystopia we currently occupy.

Set against the backdrop of a future police state, divided along communal lines, Ghoul portrays events inside a state interrogation centre (a glorified term for a torture chamber). The most common argument for torture is that it is a necessary evil we live with for the sake of “national security”. But is it possible for us to draw the line between national security, and securing the ideologies of those in power?

In fact, our understanding of national security is determined almost entirely by those in power. This is why we like to believe that the State is always benevolent, always in the right, that it cares for us – at least some of us; the ones with Netflix subscriptions, who have the luxury of watching Ghoul and drawing parallels to our reality. But we all know what happens to the adivasis in Chhattisgarh, the Kashmiris, the Manipuris, and the Gorkhas.

The truth is, the price of the hospitable, yoga-loving India we enjoy living in is paid in brutal suppression of identities that don’t conform to the State’s approval. Today, the idea of who is a Naxal has changed from a far-left extremist who might take up arms for the sake of revolution, to someone who lives in the city and exercises their freedom of speech to critique the State or fights for the rights of the dispossessed. Tomorrow, this shifting definition might include you too – that’s just how any ruling State functions.

The extreme torture and brutal suppression in Ghoul is not merely a dystopian fantasy, nor is it reserved exclusively for “certified terrorists”.

In the world of Ghoul, the “takeover” is complete: Citizens are liable to be rounded up without warrants, and punished without fair trials. A flight of the writer’s fancy? Yes, because according to us, in the real world, only the guilty suffer through torture. The grim reality is, there are so many acts and policies like the infamous AFSPA and the deliberately vague (but equally draconian) UAPA, that in the face of national security, nobody really has rights. And it doesn’t matter which ideology is in power in the Union: Not one government, whether that headed by the Congress or the BJP has moved to clarify the UAPA.

At present, India does not have a law against torture. Successive governments at the Centre have ensured India is one of the nine countries that has not ratified the 1994 UN Convention Against Torture, which would pressurise it to formulate a domestic law even as cases of custodial death and fake encounters keep piling up. The National Human Rights Commission has registered 1,782 fake encounter cases between 2000-2017, and 1,680 cases of custodial deaths have been recorded in just the last 10 months. These figures do not include most cases recorded in the North East, Kashmir, and Chattisgarh.

Protest

The monster in Ghoul is not just a demon in a horror story. It is our collective guilt when we look away instead of raising our voices.

Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In the face of these figures, presuming that everything that the government – any government – does must be fair, and that acts of preemptive justice (like arrests done under UAPA or PSA) are in national interest is dangerous. So when five renowned activists who weren’t even present at the alleged riot they supposedly incited are arrested, it is important to ask why.

The extreme torture and brutal suppression in Ghoul is not merely a dystopian fantasy, nor is it reserved exclusively for “certified terrorists”. What happened to Arun Ferreira – one of the arrested activists – when he was earlier thrown into prison for five years and then declared innocent has happened to thousands of innocents since Independence.

In 2005, WikiLeaks obtained dispatches, which revealed that US diplomats in Delhi were briefed by the International Committee of the Red Cross about the use of electrocution, beatings, and sexual humiliation against hundreds of detainees across India. In 2010, Kashmir found itself in the heart of the biggest uprising in decades after more than 6,000 unmarked mass graves were found spread across the valley. The army routinely offers financial rewards to soldiers for killing militants. But now, tales of tragic disappearances are no longer limited to the borders. Najeeb Ahmed, an MSc student from JNU went missing from his hostel in 2016. He is yet to be found.

Ghoul’s fiction was therefore, horrific but true. Today, activists have been picked up from their homes in Goa and Delhi, but it’s been standard practice in parts of India that we leave out of our mental map of progress. In the comfort of our homes, devoid of barbed wires and army jeeps, it’s still always “acche din”. Now that map of immunity is growing smaller still.

At the end of the day, the monster in Ghoul is not just a demon in a horror story. It is our collective guilt when we look away instead of raising our voices, instead of asking why. It is influenced not by fanciful imaginations of the future, but actual instances in the past and present. Now more than ever, it’s important that we don’t dismiss fiction as merely fiction, and find the uncomfortably real grains of truth in it.

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