Opinion: Prohibition, Permission and (Beyond) Pleasure

Amnesty International India
13 March 2019 3:43 pm

By Jaya Sharma

At a recent Amnesty International event, the words that best captured what I wanted to share on Human Rights were ‘prohibition’, ‘permission’ and ‘pleasure’ and the linkages between them. Unlikely bedfellows? Why I thought of these words is something I would like to share with you through some examples of human rights violations faced by women online, on twitter, at the hands of Hindu Nationalists. Human rights violations we know come in many shapes and forms.  These particular examples I hope will help me explain why I think these three words are critical in order to understand human rights violations and politics today.

You may recall that after Gauri Lankesh was murdered at her door step, Nikhil Dadhich tweeted, “Ek kutiya kutte ki maut kya mari sare pille ek sur mein bilbila rahe hain.” This could be translated as meaning that a bitch died a dog’s death and all of her litter is whining in unison.

A tweet by Actindia Karmbharat reads: “Barkha Dutt has been a superior prostitute, slept with each n every powerful of India…” (sic) Another such tweet by samirvarier is: “People like @RanaAyyub are like Railway Tracks, -> well laid across the Country #RANDI… (sic) He continues in the same vein, “How on earth can #RANDI trend when she is suffering from cervical cancer!”  After my anger subsided and I checked to see whether Rana Ayyub did indeed suffer from cervical cancer, I could not find any such information. In any case, facts do not seem to matter much to Hindu Nationalists.

This was further confirmed when I read Mahaveer’s tweet “Wat is Commie Naxalite Nakul Sawhney Doing in @nehadixit123 Bedroom? Payment in Cash or Kind?” Mahaveer is clearly unaware that Nikhil and Neha are married. Not that one needs to be married to be in the same bedroom, but the point I’m trying to make here is that for Hindu Nationalists #FactsAreNotWhereIt’sAt.

The last example is of Hindu Nationalists turning on one of their own – Sushma Swaraj – after she took action when a Hindu woman complained that an official at the passport office in Lucknow had abused her for marrying a Muslim. The abuse Sushma Swaraj faced included comments on her mental state, references to her kidney transplant and even death threats.

Most of those who tweeted the above examples, are followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These examples are not new, and there are thousands of others at hand. The reason why I have shared them is to point to the significance of the play of prohibition, permission and pleasure in the context of human rights violations.

To speak of death, disease and sex in these ways, especially in the context of women, in public forums, and twitter we know is a public forum of huge proportions – is prohibited.  Social norms prohibit these words in the name of decency. Human rights prohibit these words because they offend. Any other progressive lens would consider these words to constitute harassment.  Such words are prohibited.

And yet Hindu Nationalism permits these words, not just permits, it praises, it blesses. Not least because the Prime Minister himself follows those whose words these are.

At the intersection of prohibition and permission lies – pleasure.  The pleasure perhaps that is also experienced by those who kill Muslims and Dalits in the name of the cow, and by those who film, like and share the videos of the killings. On the one hand, decency, the law, the constitution and human rights, all prohibit this. On the other hand Hindu Nationalists permits, implores actually, the performance of such acts, openly and brazenly.

Whether online or on the streets, there is pleasure, although of an almost unbearable kind perhaps, which is why (beyond) pleasure is more apt, in the commission of what some see as incomprehensibly violent human rights violations.  If I may borrow a term from Yogi Adityanath (whose speeches I watched and cried, watched and cried as I researched for my book Fantasy Frames – Sex, Love and Indian Politics which is being published by Penguin Random House next year), he used to term ‘jashn’. One of the speeches in which I encountered this word, Adityanath said, “Shok aur santap mein humari parampara mein koi sthan nahin. Hum har karya ko jashn ke roop mein lenge…” The word “jashn” can be translated as celebration, but it can be used to mean something more charged, almost like an erotic charge, than what a word like celebration can capture. It conveys a sense of the yummy ness that politics, especially Hindu Nationalism in this context, maybe able to offer it’s followers. No dull suffering of sacrifice this! Perhaps those who engage in what we call human rights violations is not just pleasure, but an erotic charge.

It is also not about just ‘getting away’ with breaking prohibitions. The pleasure, the erotic charge lies in doing that which is prohibited (by others) with the permission, in fact praise, of the one who matters.

This is an erotic high that cannot be dampened by facts.  This is a charge whose intensity can devastate.

But those who commit these human rights violations – are they monsters? Or perhaps they are mere puppets in the hands of evil politicians?

Or #MightItBe that they are not that different from you and me?

Have you ever experienced pleasure at doing that which is prohibited because you found some permission for it?  Perhaps touching within, a taboo sexual fantasy? Perhaps in the yummy yucky deliciousness of a venomous attack made in the service of one’s ideology (however progressive) against the enemy or against one of our own, on facebook or twitter? (Ways of attacking perhaps which we ourselves, in other contexts, would prohibit.)  #MightItBe that we derive pleasure in such attacks because while one the one hand we are breaking prohibitions against aggression, that too in public, in the vast public that is the online world, on the other hand we feel we are being given permission by the ideology we seem to be defending.

I do not for a moment mean to suggest that we know that we are deriving pleasure, or that we are behaving like this in a rational, thought through manner. I’m speaking here of the unconscious. Seen through the lens of psychoanalysis, we have all experienced prohibitions, since not so long after we were born, which we continue to chafe against throughout our lives. To be able to break prohibitions, and to get not punishment but permission, even praise – who would not want such pleasure!

The last thing that I am suggesting is that Hindu Nationalists are innocent. They are dangerous. They constitute the biggest danger we face today. It is precisely because of this that we need to understand our enemy well. #MightItBe that if we dare to touch that which we might have in common with them, that we will be better placed to fight them.  #MightItBe that it is not possible to counter the high, the pleasure experienced at the intersection of prohibition and permission with facts and arguments alone. #MightItBe that we need newer ways of seeing and understanding politics that can inform newer ways to counter human rights violations of the kind that we are suffering today.

Till now we have seen and engaged with politics through the economic, social and the historical. What if we were to deploy the feminist mantra ‘personal is political’? #MightItBe that we will see dimensions of politics that we have not so far been able to see?  #MightItBe that if we are able to connect with the pleasure at the intersection of prohibition and permission in our own lives that we may better understand the pleasure, the erotic charge that Hindu Nationalism inspires. An erotic charge that forces us to see the limits of fact and reason?

Jaya Sharma is a feminist activist and writer who has been working with issues of sexuality for over two decades. She is currently writing a book entitled ‘Fantasy Frames – Sex, Love and Indian Politics to be published by Penguin Random House next year. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect that of Amnesty India.