How Smartphone Cameras Changed the Way We “Perform” Violence, From BJP’s Joota Fight to the Assam Meat-seller’s Video

Social Commentary

How Smartphone Cameras Changed the Way We “Perform” Violence, From BJP’s Joota Fight to the Assam Meat-seller’s Video

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The first ever physical altercation that I got myself into was supremely silly, as all schoolyard fights tend to be. The details of the whys and hows are fuzzy, but I remember being ten, and at some point during the course of this battle my “opponent” picked up a compass and ran after me. I remember running from him in utter panic, completely forgetting about how these encounters generally end – does someone stop us? Do we go on until we’re tired? Does one of us die?

I got into a few more fights in school after that, as if the floodgates had suddenly opened. I have to admit, growing up and maturing to talk about your differences with friends has never felt as liberating as clocking someone on the nose. It was crude, simple, and extremely efficient.

My manner of fighting though was less “fighting” and more “flailing”. I’d fling myself with adequate force toward my target of attack, and hope that the eventual collision would have a significant enough impact for the other person to topple over. I’d then grab at anything and attempt (poorly) to pummel (weakly) my opponent down, not unlike MP Sharad Tripathi and MLA Rakesh Singh Baghel from Uttar Pradesh.

The video of the two ministers brawling at a BJP meeting went viral a couple of weeks ago. While their sheer lack of grace made me and a lot of others chuckle, the sight of our elected representatives behaving like 10-year-old versions of me has left some of us a little disconcerted. One would think that in the age of the phone camera, we’d be a little wary of how we behave in public spaces.

But when even average citizens brazenly enact violence before the cameras, why would ministers balk at the notion? This week, footage emerged of the owner of a meat shop being forced to his knees by a mob and forced to eat pork in violation of his Islamic faith, because he was serving buffalo meat at his store. It’s not the first time a viral video depicting violence has captured our imagination, and sadly, it will certainly not be the last.

In the past weeks, we have had a few videos go viral that encapsulate the times we live in, and the violence that is now typical and even expected of the Indian man – that virality rests on the assumption that the content in question is loud, dramatic, and representative of a larger idea. And rather than check ourselves and be careful about how we present ourselves to the ever-roving eye of the phone camera, many have instead begun exaggerating their anger and their violence, performing for the camera instead of cowering before it.

We have a history of violence in the time of the camera that tells us so much about where we’ve come – a time when we feared what the ISIS would upload each time a beheading took place, to Shambhulal Regar performing murder on camera while simultaneously having a friendly relationship with the viewer, to the Christchurch attacks where a man sends out a schedule days in advance and livestreams a massacre. The video as evidence, but not shame, has become a part of the cycle of violence, as it is called, and we’ve quietly accepted it as a part of 21st-century existence.

One would think that in the age of the phone camera, we’d be a little wary of how we behave in public spaces.

Take for example, Mr Tripathi and Mr Baghel. The curious part about this video is that whoever was recording it had begun recording it well before any semblance of a conflict arose, a natural impulse for so many of us now. An argument breaks out between Tripathi and Baghel. It’s very clear that Tripathi is the aggressor, attempting to impose hierarchy onto Baghel – he the mighty MP sitting in Delhi and son of an ex-BJP (UP) President, and Baghel the lowly MLA from Menhdawal. As it progresses, Tripathi’s anger boils over, and is further amplified by Baghel’s refusal to take this public dressing-down lightly. Eventually, TripaHothi, with the grace of an ox, takes off his boot and begins smacking Baghel over the head.

There’s violence and there’s the pride of a “known man’s” son – it’s political power in a nutshell, power that exists in the mind of the beholder whose pride is attached to his name. Then again, there’s a man recording all of this. And many others, as we see in the background of the ensuing brawl, and yet the two don’t stop. The phones perhaps encourage them – the world will get to witness them go at it, violent masculine pride that can be forwarded over even a 2G network.

Then there’s the far more terrifying video of members of a right-wing “fringe” group assaulting Kashmiri fruit-sellers in Lucknow. The attackers here consciously perform for the camera, a result of the seemingly prevalent license to go around harassing those from a minority or less privileged community. The camera never shifts gaze from them – they are the subjects of the video, their use of force is the subject of the video, while the men being beaten are worthless, mere tools to be used for the sculpting of ideology. It’s a startling image of violence as a way of existence, an expression of nationalism, now streaming at 1080p with a prepaid pack that costs as much as a bag of Surf Excel.

The third video doing the rounds is also representative of the absurd times we live in. Authoritarianism is funny until it becomes serious, and in India we’re still revving our engines at the “funny” checkpoint. A news anchor for a local channel at a University in Muzaffarnagar is interviewing a young man who goes on a tirade against the Modi government. The anchor patiently listens before turning to another student. The camera pans to the new interviewee, but we can hear an argument break out in the background. The new interviewee disagrees with the previous statement. He’s just about to go into a monologue about how violence and gundagardi has halted after the BJP government’s victory, when the anchor and camera both rapidly turn to the left where the previous interviewee is being thrashed by BJP supporters.

We are Big Brother and Big Brother is us.

This is straight out of the Golmaal film franchise, but we laugh here because it’s real. Violence often is funny. It’s mindless and stupid, but funnier still is the violent man’s claim of peace – like when Narendra Modi wins a peace prize in Seoul before embarking on the most violent week in the history of his tenure.

We’ve always been a violent country, but the immediacy of it today is staggering. Any act of violence can be recorded and spread on the internet in a matter of seconds. This is India today. This is what we choose to record, and it’s slowly making us numb to the horrors of oppression. We live among violence, we consume it every other second, it’s what makes news, it’s what goes viral, it’s very often what a lot of people in the country want.

It isn’t startling any longer that the terrorist who shot up a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand chose to record his act and livestream it on Facebook. Not a “mindless act of violence” – this is planned, organised and performed for the sake of making a statement that can be copied and amplified by other white supremacists. As news reports say, Facebook moderators had to take it down more than a million times in 24 hours. Admirers just keep re-uploading the video as an act of defiance.   

The history of this modern age can be retold just by chronologically playing the videos that we’ve seen go viral. From the time when I fought in school and phone cameras were capable of nothing more than capturing a single pixel and the country’s violent tendencies were more imagined than seen – we’d hear about 1984, 1992 and 2002, but it was up to our own vivid imaginations to reconstruct the horrors – to today when we have entire apps dedicated to recording our every waking second, leaving little to the imagination and plonking in front of us a bare, raw, unfiltered, shapeless monster, that we’re expected to salute and pay reverence to.

The Aam Aadmi Party has promised to install more than a lakh CCTV cameras around Delhi to curb crime. This is the surveillance state as it was imagined to be – ominous cameras perched high above, pointed directly at us. However, it’s really the ones we point at ourselves that are doing the job well enough. We are Big Brother and Big Brother is us. And Big Brother clearly likes to fight.