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Legal Violence and Its Unacknowledged Terrain in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court

Drishadwati Bargi ( is a Graduate Student in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota. She is working on a dissertation on the political philosophy of B R Ambedkar.

A critical take on the film, Court, with respect to the legal discourse through which it weaves its narrative of the failure of legal activism. The film is critiqued through a particular branch of critical legal scholarship that associates the activities of the lawyer or legal activist with that of the translator or the interpreter. As activities pertaining to justice and the survival of human beings, acts of misreading and mistranslation are therefore not innocent or incidental to the legal process or legal activism.

An animal can be made to suffer, but we would never say, in a sense considered proper, that it is a wronged subject, the victim of a crime, of a murder, of a rape or a theft, of a perjury-and this is true a fortiori, we think, for what we call vegetable or mineral or intermediate species like the sponge. There have been, there are still, many “subjects” among mankind who are not recognized as subjects and who receive this animal treatment.

“Force of Law” (Derrida 2002: 246)


The following article is an analysis of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, a Marathi film that documents legal violence in the city of Mumbai. The film was released in 2014 and caught national as well as international attention for its one of a kind take on legal violence, jingoism and censorship. Much of its reception was also determined by the contemporary circulation of the accusation of sedition against Indian students from prestigious universities. My article is a critical take on the film with respect to the legal discourse through which it weaves its narratives. I argue that the film narrates the failure of legal activism and what the latter is incapable of registering. This incapacity in effect questions a tradition of conflating violence with legal violence and directs us towards violence that cannot be conceptualised through the idiom of state violence. I rely on a particular branch of critical legal scholarship that associates the activities of the lawyer or legal activist with that of the translator or the interpreter. Within this tradition, legal activism against violence responds to legal narratives that are interpreted and translated within the frames of secular and liberal legal discourse. In other words, the legal order creates a legible order, thereby not just marking what is criminal and what is innocent but also determining how, through which idiom, which language, the criminal or the innocent can be read. This process is an act of narration and reading that translates practices from the everyday into the exceptional. As such, they always carry with them possibilities of misreading and mistranslation. As activities pertaining to justice and the survival of human beings, acts of misreading and mistranslation are therefore not innocent or incidental to the legal process or legal activism.

The film creates an occasion for an interrogation of such legal readings and translations. It also leads us to ask, what happens when legal activism fails to read and respond beyond the legalised and the translated? Can this failure be acknowledged, interpreted and narrated? Further, the acts of interpretation and translation that are central to the world of legal activism also suppose—to borrow from Jacques Derrida—all those who are judged share the same idiom, that the victim is capable of language in general, that he is a speaking animal. Legal activism in this particular film, whether benevolent or punitive, relies on this specific act of linguistic violence that makes the victim speak a language or idiom that s/he does not share. I will show that it is a language of the majority and it partakes in a biopolitical discourse of health and safety. Every other language or idiom is interpreted with reference to this language.

Violence in the Legal Order

In his 1921 essay, the “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin offers a critique of violence that pervades European democracies that are built on the conception of positive, historical legal systems. In spite of the specificity of the essay, in terms of its geographical origins, it can be particularly useful in unravelling certain aspects of violence of the democracies in postcolonial cities, as many of them have inherited a positive legal system from Europe. In the essay, Benjamin begins with the distinction between legitimate/historically justifiable and illegitimate violence upon which positive law is built. However, this distinction does not hold as all legal systems are built on foundational violence that is imposed like a fiat without any preceding system of justification. The historically justifiable, transparent and the mediate violence of the legal order is preceded by the mythical, obscure and the immediate violence that gives birth to the legal order. This is a historical contradiction that all positive legal systems embody and is exemplified in the figure of the police. An unavoidable, inescapable part of contemporary states, the figure of the police, is significant for Benjamin as it brings together the law- making and law-preserving violence of the legal order. Benjamin (1978: 287) writes, “It is law making, as its characteristic function is not the promulgation of laws but the assertion of legal claims, and law-preserving, because it is at the disposal of these ends.”

It is unconstrained as it does not have to prove its worth in victory (unlike founding violence) nor does it have to set itself new ends (like law-preserving violence). Ironically, its presence, its “intervention for security reasons”, is also a sign of the degeneration of legal system and violence, the impotence of the state (Benjamin 1978: 287). According to Benjamin, it accompanies the citizen as a “brutal encumbrance”, and its “power is formless,” “ghostlike,” “intangible” (1978: 287). Following Benjamin, it can be said that the so-called rational legal order contains within itself an element of the irrational; the supposedly transparent legible, readable order sometimes works like fate or myth that in effect is opaque, obscure and intangible. The opaqueness makes the violence even more brutal and inescapable. The police is its worst manifestation, a presence that often needs no justification; interestingly it is that “excess” of legal power that can in effect lead to its impotence and degeneration. Stretching this argument a little further, I would say that the precise act of policing, that insidiously and incessantly prohibits the citizen may no longer be in the service of the state. Its excess and formlessness can threaten the state and can put legal activism into crisis.

At this point, we have two different conceptions of the law. On the one hand, it works by writing, reading, translating, therefore by making things transparent. On the other, its concrete manifestation in the police, its emergence through violence makes unreadability, obscurity a constitutive element of its existence. Violence works both ways, by creating a legible order as well as by making things obscure, unreadable, unjustifiable.

The spectrality of the presence of the police and the fatal or mythical aspect of rational, readable, transparent legal order towards which Benjamin’s critique draws our attention can be juxtaposed with the obscurity, unreadability, formlessness that constitutes a city space like Mumbai. The city space has often been regarded as a mesh that makes mapping, reading, navigating a difficult task. As a city, Mumbai has intrigued sociologists, litterateurs, film-makers and cultural critics as a palimpsest, as a rapidly expanding urban conglomerate with a rich history of working class mobilisations, Dalit movements, communal violence, anti-immigrant violence and underworld gangsters. These often conflicting mobilisations of people have led to production of subjectivities that are far from homogeneous, totalising and stable. Rather, there has been a proliferation of identifications based on caste, religion, language, class and gender. I regard Court as one of the more successful films that have responded to this urban mesh with a great sensitivity to the often unchanging and stable practices of exclusions that underlie and trigger such passionate mobilisations of bodies, objects and spaces.

Broader Definition of Racism

In many ways, Mumbai can become a test case for the elaboration of what Etienne Balibar has called “neo-racism”; a kind of racism that relies on a new theory (narrative?) of racism that seems to decentre the older biological “essentialism of old racism by foregrounding a discourse of rigidified and positivistic cultural particularity and essential incompatibility with other cultures.” At this point, one may ask whether it is legitimate to use the term “racism” in order to theorise each and every history of discrimination. The answer partially lies in the way we understand racism. To the extent racism is a “theoretical, intellectual and massified elaboration” of the “phantasm of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve “one’s own” or “our identity” from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion) which are articulated around the stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices). I do not see why it cannot be used as an analytical tool to understand the mechanism of casteism or nativism in India (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991: 17–18). Moreover, certain “racist postures” like “auto-referentiality”1 or “hetero-phobia” are often constitutive elements of casteism and jingoism that is part of the experience of the city space of Mumbai.

This broader definition of racism underscores a “polymorphism of racism,” that does not “represent a juxtaposition of merely analogous behaviour and discourses applied to a potentially indefinite series of objects independent of each other, but a historical system of complementary exclusions and dominations which are mutually interconnected” (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991: 49). If this statement has to be taken seriously one has to admit that the concept of “racism” cannot simply be understood as a heuristic device for understanding caste. There are clear linkages between caste-based violence and colonial racism.

In this context, Gayatri Spivak’s short essay “The Rani of Sirmur” is helpful in understanding the complexity of the situation, particularly if we want to resist an understanding that reduces the decolonising racism to a mimetic racism on part of what goes under the name of third world nations. Not only does it undermine the agency (even if it is negative, it is an agency nonetheless) of third world nationalisms, it also simplifies the process of colonialism itself. Further, the idea of mimicking subjects tend to re-inscribe what Spivak has described as the colonial presupposition of the colonised world as an “uninscribed, lawless, master-less” territory that needed the ad hoc colonial state to manage its colonised land when confronted with its difference or autonomy. What is much more interesting is how this ad hoc state formation dealt with the precolonial hierarchy and internal heterogeneity. In this matter they were far from neutral. In the essay, Spivak writes, “Although they (officials of East India Company) tended to transform/proletarianise the aboriginals, it is in Rajputs chiefs whose claim they endorse.”

Spivak calls this the “divisive racial policies” of the company-state (Spivak 1985: 264). And why is the claim of Rajput chief endorsed? There is no clear answer given in the text. But the text attests to reliance on earlier forms of scriptural laws on part of the colonial state. Thus, this is not just racially divisive, but also a reinforcement of the scripture and the law, that is, the written law that pre-existed the colonial encounter. What this attests to is a constitutive hybridity of the colonial/modern and the scriptural, Hindu Brahminic in the formation of the law. The secular law already contains within itself its other, the non-secular, the scriptural or the Brahminical. This process can be described as translation that is carrying something over, of the Brahminical into secular violence.

The concept of translation brings to surface the narrativity of the law that justifies or identifies violence or crime. It also helps us think of mistranslation and unfinished translation. It also opens up the space for the untranslatable or the outside. I am borrowing this idea from James Boyd White’s book Justice and Translation: An Essay in Cultural and Legal Criticism who writes that the central activity of law is the reading of texts (White 1990: 241) and law works by the translation of authoritative texts into the present moment (White 1990: 246). He further states that the law always requires an act of creation, a making of something new; yet the original text cannot be forgotten, for fidelity is always due to it (White 1990: 246). Finally, in his conception, the lawyer is constantly moving between languages and therefore, is constantly translating (White 1990: 261).

The Two Translations

This constant movement between languages and in the extension of their worlds, the back and forth movement between the so-called scenes of crime to the space where judgments are handed down, are dramatised in the film. Although the film centres round the space of the court, the camera zooms on heterogeneous lived spaces of the city. These include the slums where Ambedkarite performer Narayan Kamble sings and urges the audience to know and map the city well, the theaters where middle classes flock in order to participate in jingoistic entertainment, the street where the progressive lawyer is suddenly attacked by a group of community-policemen for allegedly dishonouring their name, etc. There is also the unseen, invisible gutter of the city where Vasudev Pawar inhales poisonous gas and is forced to die.

The spaces coexist in the same city, yet are distinct and heterogeneous to one another. It is the legal order and the Court that makes the language and lives in these heterogeneous spaces rub against one another. As a man is accused of a crime and the legal system begins an unending process of accusation, trials and judgments, it not only brings people and spaces together, it also begins a process of interpretation and translation whereby the language of one space is forcibly translated into legal discourse, the language of crime and punishment, right and wrong, order and security.

In the following section, I would show how the film documents the multiple translations of the crimes and it is the act of translation and narration of the violence that constructs the drama in the film. It revolves around the lives of Kamble, a Dalit singer who is accused of abetment of suicide through his songs, his defending lawyer Vinay Vora, public prosecutor Nutan, Judge Sadavarthe and Sharmila Pawar, the wife of the deceased man Pawar, who allegedly committed suicide by inhaling poisonous gas in one of the gutters in Mumbai. Each one of their lives belongs to a particular segment in the social and it is the Court that brings these segments together. However, that is only one way of translating the incident. From another perspective, it is the death of the manual scavenger in the underground gutter of Mumbai that brings these segments together. The first is the story of the legal violence. That is the dominant narrative of the text. Underlying this narrative is the narrative of the death of the man who is present as an absence, as an “absent presence.” This suppressed narrative is the narrative of a violence that the legal violence tries to sanction, justify and translate and mistranslate. I will also show that the narrative of the state, that is, the public prosecutor’s narrative as well as the defending lawyer’s narrative; mirror each other in not only misinterpreting the death of Vasudev Pawar but also translating it into a logic that can be described by what Michel Foucault has called “bio-politics” or a politics of life itself.

First Translation

Let us read how the legal order tries to codify this violence, that is, the death of the manual scavenger. The following is the dominant narrative of violence in the film. It is the narrative of the public prosecutor:

The accused Narayan Kamble, aged 65, is charged under Indian Penal Code, section 306, abetment of suicide in the death of Vasudev Pawar, age 25, who was a worker under contract with the Brihanmumbai (Greater Mumbai) Municipal Corporation. The deceased person committed suicide on the night of 24 August 2012, by choking himself to death inside a sewer, located inside a sewer, located at Ram Vilas Nagar, Andheri East. The police, after its thorough investigation, concluded in its report that it was a clear case of suicide. No manhole worker with any experience of doing job for five years like the deceased would go inside the sewer without any kind of protection to eyes, nose or skin. These workers are fully aware of hazardous gases that breed inside the sewers. And know that they can lead to instant death if proper precaution is not taken. When the dead body of the deceased was recovered from the sewage, no safety equipment were found near him even after searching for many hours. No wounds, injuries or signs of struggle were found on Vasudev Pawar’s body, nor did the post-mortem show any other cause for death, other than the poisonous gases which were inhaled. According to section 306, if any person commits suicide, whoever abets such suicide should be sentenced to imprisonment which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine. There is sufficient evidence collected through police investigation that the suicide of Vasudev Pawar was provoked by a performance of the accused party, Narayan Kamble and his troupe in the locality in which the deceased resided and was seen in attendance of the performance in question. The suicide took place just two days after the performance … There was one song performed by the accused which coaxed and encouraged manhole workers to commit suicide by deeply inhaling the toxic gases found inside the sewers. It is no coincidence that the song in question suggests exactly the method of suicide that is deliberate negligence of safety norms by which the deceased took his life. According to this song, giving up one’s life is the one and only solution for certain sections of the society to gain dignity and respect. Here Narayan Kamble is openly endorsing and encouraging an act, which is an offence according to the Section 309.

The public prosecutor’s statement has two effects. First, it interprets the death of a worker, a death by “accident,” into the manageable account of suicide. Second, it curtails or infringes upon the freedom of an activist singer by holding his words responsible for the death, a gesture that translates his words into a threat, and turns him into a public enemy, a figure that endangers the life of the community and the integrity of the society. It is here that the biopolitical logic of the state’s narrative becomes apparent. Kamble is a street activist who sings against corruption, debauchery and atrocity. Take for example, the lyrics of his song, “Know your Enemy,” “Pandemonium is here, time to raise and revolt/Tough times are here/we are uprooted from the soil/this era of blindness/has gouged our eyes/a gent appears a crook/an owl resembles a peacock/a giant becomes babyish/a baby turns into giant/humanity is in cages/it burns, it disintegrates.” It is a song about mapping the city and knowing one’s enemy, which incidentally is not a particular person or a community but this assault on the senses that the city brings forth, the flux that determines the lives of its people and the divisive politics of colours (a tangential reference to India’s political system). Yet, in the public prosecutor’s statement, there is no mention of this political activism. The law refuses to recognise this in the letter.

We, as audience know that it is his anti-caste activism that is bringing the wrath of the state upon him. The space where he performs makes it clear through the posters and banners. Very strangely, the same state, when translating this action into legal frame does not mention caste atrocity. Rather, it gets encoded into the depoliticised language of “safety” and “life.” This is what Michel Foucault describes as “a particular relationship between my life and death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological type relationship (Foucault 2013: 75). The confrontation with the other is no longer perceived in the older idioms of war or enmity. Rather, it is interpreted in the language of safety or danger to life itself. In this case, Kamble’s song is held responsible for the death of a manual scavenger. Resisting this narrative, the defending lawyer tries his best to prove that the death was caused by inhaling poisonous gases as the worker was never given any mask or protection from the state bodies. However, what gets re-codified in these contrasting positions is a discourse of precautionary use of technologies, masks, gloves, poisonous gases, health hazards, etc. The defending lawyer accuses the state for not providing enough safety tools and technologies. The public prosecutor accuses the singer for coaxing the man to not use safety tools (something that he never had) and thereby bring upon his death.

Very absurdly, the entire discourse of accusation and defence runs around this absence or presence of technologies. The state’s failure, in this liberal understanding of violence, is its inability to provide the right kind of technologies. However, when this argument fails, the defending lawyer takes on another strategy. He requests the court to use its discretion and grant the accused bail as he is ailing and old. Once again, it is the health of the citizen that becomes the last resort, the last ground for the lawyer to fight his case. It is nonetheless another matter that the court does not pay heed to this at all. But what is interesting is the lawyer’s insistence on the health of the accused. It can be said here that the question of health and its connection with the everyday repeats itself in the lives of the other protagonists itself. It is during these moments that the postcolonial state begins to closely resemble the biopolitical state and its citizens being firmly invested in the notion of the health of the state, community and nation.

Political Life of the Citizen

What this discourse demands is the complete depoliticisation of an individual. Thus, when the public prosecutor indicts Kamble for his past records of arrest under the sedition charge, his defendant takes resort to undermining this past act of alleged sedition. Why does the defendant’s argument sound so weak? What is at stake in this undermining and a denial of the performance that was allegedly harmful for the “integrity” of the nation? It is but the political life of the citizen, which the discourse of the health and integrity of the nation rejects and delegitimises. Moreover, something greater is at stake here. The logic of health and safety does not just play into a strategy of depoliticisation. It also secularises and depersonalises the subject of violence. Like “state-racism,” this is an identity-based violence that operates without evoking any particular identity. The sympathetic audience, the defending lawyer and the public prosecutor know that the accused and the deceased are Dalits. We also know that the lawyers and the judge belong to the dominant caste. Yet, in the justification as well as de-justification of violence, their identities are not evoked once. Why? That is due to the fact that the public space and the legal discourse have already translated the discourse of caste into a discourse of health, hygiene and safety. Within this frame of reference the Dalit is either a health hazard or sickness personified. Translated thus, one can practise purification and pollution without even evoking the Brahminical scriptures or rituals. Needless to say, a critique that fails to work through this translation of the Brahminical into the biopolitical will inevitably fail to defend the accused.

To be fair to Tamhane, the lawyer is not the only “voice” of the film. There are other voices that confront the legal apparatus, in the form of community vigilantism. At this point the focus needs to be shifted from legal violence in order to make sense of violence in the postcolonial city. Court is not just about legal violence or the violence that is institutionalised by the secular modernity. It is also about the multiple processes and justifications of violence that affects the everyday life. One of its chief interventions in understanding violence is that he locates its valorisation not in the slums but in the aesthetic or cultural investment of middle-class households. It is also the site where Maratha nativism flourishes along with jingoistic claims of cultural superiority. The public prosecutor Nutan upholds such an identity. This gets clear when she accompanies her family to watch a play that is all about the mythical corruption of the Marathi household as a result of the seduction by North Indian men. The most interesting element of play is its caricature of the “outsider” through a pointed reference to his language, accent, food habits and working class status. These moments also attest to the everyday myth-making that constructs these caricatures and stereotypes of the outsider to render him illegitimate, inferior and corrupted.

This is not just the intersection of racism and sexism but also a normalisation of the discourse of the “threatening outsider” through humour and rollicking laughter. Indeed, laughter and joke are the bearers of these nativist myths when it comes to middle-class ideologues in the film. For instance, in the court, when the public prosecutor shares her meal with two of her colleagues, the former expresses her exasperation at the tiresome legal proceedings and says casually, “He should be quickly given a sentence of twenty years!” at which her colleagues react with their own jokes. This is not just a question of normalisation of violence. Instead this is a pointer at the unconscious of the middle class which hardly gets surfaced in the statistical records of violence against Dalits or other minorities in India. It is in these moments that the violent, illiberal and casteist “common sense” of the middle classes come to the surface. Thus en-framed in the narrative, their claims of “castelessness” fall apart. An absolute suspicion of the other and a desire for its excommunication undergirds the jokes or humour that they weave in common. This logic is at once biopolitical. It is a decision on those who must live and those who must die, whose lives are threatening and corrupting the body politic of the community.

The difference from a strictly biopolitical violence is also palpable. Although tied up with legal violence and the state, it does not need the state’s support to legitimise itself or invent itself. It replicates or mimics the state in creating its own frontiers and practices of domination. On certain occasions, it can claim a right to violence and the state simply has to look the other way! This gets clear when the defending lawyer Grover is attacked by members of an offended sect in broad daylight because of the former’s critique of their “regressive and backward practices.” While we sympathise with the shocked idealistic lawyer, who helplessly sheds tear in his room and later on visits a spa, what comes out clearly is the “discrepant temporalities” of the lives of the members of the city. While he questions the relevance of such practices in a “postcolonial” modern city like Mumbai, his opponent, the public prosecutor simply affirms and asserts the “tradition and culture” of the community in question.

The modernist weapon of rationality and progress is crushed by the weight of the tradition and invincibility of culture in this discourse of cultural racism. This claim on the present by the past also undercuts the nation state’s autonomy as well as the autonomy of the state in executing violence. As it dogmatically upholds the colonial laws and prohibitions (“Law is Law,” says the public prosecutor), one wonders about the nation’s sovereignty which seems to be hollowed out by the twin pull of the colonial past and the other “imagined communities” and their absolute incompatibility with the secular or modern present. The nation state is clearly not the only possible imagined community in the postcolony. This is also the moment when Grover, firmly ensconced within a rationalist liberal critique of state violence confronts another source of violence. This is a violence that maintains and creates its frontier, which works under the sign of honour, tradition and respect. When he crosses it ignorantly, he is immediately punished. These acts of surveillance, prohibition and unjustifiable aggression replicate the formless form of police violence that characterise the degenerated and impotent legal systems of European democracies. Functioning like the police, replicating its coercive and punitive character, this violence exceeds the demands of positive law and the latter’s essential relationship with the process of justification. This violence works like fate, requiring no justification or interpretation. It is no surprise then that the lawyer fails to rationalise in the aftermath of this violence and is reduced to tears.

Experience of Suffering

The narrative brings together the lives of those inhabitants who belong to the different segments of the city. The gated, upper-caste, more Westernised home of the defending lawyer has an opulence that contrasts with the moderated lifestyle of the much more Hindu home of the public prosecutor. In contrast, comes the one-room house of Kamble in the more dense and dilapidated parts of the city, a home that also doubles up as his workplace. However, why do these lives come together? What makes this brief encounter possible? What leads to the breaking of the segments thereby revealing them even more clearly? It is none other than the death of the manual scavenger in one of the gutters of the city. It is death, an accident that brings these lives together. Alternatively, to take Henri Lefevbre’s insight, it is also the name of an experience of suffering that brings out the rhythms of the lives of these people in sharp relief.2 How does this death take place? The man inhales poisonous gases in the drain and dies. As he was an employee of the Mumbai municipal corporation, his death cannot be wished away by the state. His death reveals the failure of the state machinery to protect its agents. It has a potential to trigger crisis. Thus the state must respond to it. In his 17 March 1976 lecture, “The Society Must Be Defended,” Foucault makes the following observation about modern power and death:

Now that power is decreasingly the power of the right to take life, and increasingly the right to intervene to make live, or once power begins to intervene mainly at the level in order to improve life by eliminating accidents, the random element, and deficiencies, death becomes, insofar as it is the end of life, the term, the limit, or the end of power too. Death is outside the power relationship. Death is beyond the reach of power, and power has a grip on it only in general, overall, or statistical terms. Power has no control over death but it can control mortality. And to that extent, it is only natural that death should now be privatized and should become the most private thing of all. In the right of sovereignty, death was the moment of the most obvious and most spectacular manifestation of absolute power, death now becomes in contrast the moment when the individual escapes all power, falls back on himself and retreats, so to speak, into his own privacy. Power no longer recognizes death. Power literally ignores death. (Foucault 2013: 68)

Following Foucault, every death in a biopolitical state is an escape from the control of power. Moreover, it also points at the state’s failure in eliminating the accident of his death. It is an embarrassment for the state. And the state responds by not recognising it. Not only that, it misrecognises it by calling it a suicide. In this case, the suicide is the “private affair” upon which the state relies and implicates Kamble. This narrative aids the state in ignoring the death of one of its employees. At this point, we can revisit Foucault’s argument about state racism. In the same lecture, Foucault defines state racism as that which articulates or resolves the contradiction that arises from the biopolitical state’s aim of preserving/improving life and its equally operative desire that calls for the death of its citizens (Foucault 2013: 73). It is through racism that a break is introduced between “what must live and what must die.” In the case of Kamble, we have seen how the state incriminates him by calling him a threat to the life and integrity of the community. This is a gesture that in Foucault’s words “puts them (individuals) out of the circuit or neutralizes them” (Foucault 2013: 65). However, is the same logic at work in the justification of death of Vasudev Pawar? What is the role of this death in the narratives of the state? The obvious answer is that it enables the state to implicate Kamble. But does it mean that the state values Vasudev Pawar’s life? Clearly, the answer is in the negative. He is not the one “who must live.” But is he the one “who must die” so that those who must live may live? Does his death make the community safer, purer, healthier as Kamble’s real or social death would? The film does not allow us to speak in the affirmative. In fact, the conceptual binary between those who must live and those who must die is not adequate in the understanding of the predicament of Vasudev Pawar. It is rooted in another binary, one that is much deeper than state racism of modernity. This is the moment when we have to see beyond the dominant narrative of the text.

Second Translation

On the surface, the narrative structures the plot in a way that makes Kamble’s ordeal the central element in the drama, as if his ordeal determines the motion of the drama. My suggestion is that this is one of the ways in which the state wants us to see the events. Privileging the centrality of Kamble would be same as seeing like the state. It would also be a privileging of the legal violence, thereby limiting a critique of violence to legal violence only. Instead, as readers, we must look for that which makes the legal violence possible, that which makes the biopolitical state respond in a particular way. If we posit ourselves in the tradition of what Lefebvre calls “rhythm-analysis” of the city, we must account for the suffering that disturbs this rhythm. Henceforth, the task of the critic is to offer a diagnostic of that suffering, to unearth what the condition of possibility of this suffering is. Let us focus on Sharmila Pawar, the wife of the deceased Vasudev Pawar.

Judge: What is your name?

Respondent: Sharmila Pawar.

Judge: Where were you all these days?

Respondent: I had gone back to my village.

Judge: Your husband died, there was a police case. After the autopsy no one claimed the body either.

Respondent: (Silence).

Judge: Why did you leave for the village?

Respondent: Because I was scared…”

A little later:

Public prosecutor: Name?

Repondent: Sharmila Pawar

Public prosecutor: age?

Respondent: Don’t know.

Public prosecutor: From the time you got married, did Vasudev always clean gutters?

Respondent: Yes.

Public Prosecutor: Meaning he was used to this job? He did not receive any injury while doing this job, right?

Respondent: He had lost an eye.

Public prosecutor: Did he ever talk of suicide?

Respondent: No.

Defending Lawyer: Would your husband ever wear any mask to protect his face when he would go for work?

Respondent: No.

Lawyer: Gum boots, mask or something?

Respondent: No.

Lawyer: Then how would he enter the gutters?

Respondent: He would just enter.

Lawyer: But isn’t it full of dirt and stench inside?

Respondent: Yes, but he would look for cockroaches.

Lawyer: As in?

Respondent: As in, he would throw pebbles inside the gutter, and if a cockroach or a bug would come out, he knew it was safe to go in.

Much later in the day,

Defending lawyer: May I help you in any way? I can arrange for some money.

Respondent: No, I don’t need money. I need job. Get me a job. I am ready to do any kind of work.

What is the status of Sharmila Pawar’s speech? She has been summoned to speak in the court, summoned by the court, summoned by the law, against her will. This speech is made under duress. To recall what Spivak states in her essay “Rani of Sirmur,” it is the state’s administrative exigency that makes this moment of speech of the subaltern possible.3 To put it bluntly, the conditions that make the subaltern speak is against the interest of the subaltern. From her side, Sharmila Pawar is not interested in the legal proceedings or legal justice either. She does not accuse anyone for the alleged suicide of her husband. Nonetheless, this is also the way the “truth” comes out, the truth about her husband’s death. This is a truth to which she does not make any claim. When the exasperated judge asks why she had not made a claim on her husband’s corpse, she replies, “I was scared.” These three words and the subsequent statement of Sharmila Pawar reveals what Vinay Vora fails to recognie. How must we read the phrase “I was scared”?

At this point, the question of interpretation of silence comes up. How do we read this silence of a caste and gendered subaltern bearing witness to her husband’s death against her will? It has already been argued that the lawyer’s argument is invested in a biopolitical discourse of the state, an engagement that effectively displaces any possibility of politics. However, there is more than one displacement that is at work here. Not only is the death interpreted in modernist idiom of technology, there is also a misrecognition of the work of sanitation. After all, what the deceased worker did cannot be called sanitation per se, but the work of manual scavenging. The word sanitation neutralises and invisibilises the body that works in order to maintain the sanitation (as well the sanity of the city). It makes it appear as one among many tasks that the multiple members of the civil society perform. This is the universalising discourse of India’s elite that perceives itself and no doubt the society as a casteless and secular entity. This misreading displaces the inextricability of work- and caste-based division of labour.4

(H)e would throw pebbles inside the gutter, and if a cockroach or a bug would come out, he knew it was safe to go in.

In this statement, Sharmila Pawar describes the way her husband would examine the gutter before entering it, much more is at stake than a simple absence of technologies, as the defending lawyer would have us believe. If we extricate it from the discourse of technological backwardness of the Indian state that the modernist lawyer talks about, we confront a situation in which what is at stake is the very definition of the human and the Dalit’s precarious positioning in the category. Can we assert with certainty that the being who relies on cockroaches for his life is a human being? Does not this everyday communication between the human and the insect unsettle what we mean by a human? Does not this commonality between the two put the boundary between the human and the animal at risk? Following Derrida, can we ask whether this liminal, amorphous being can make a claim to injury? Can it say, “I have suffered?” It is needless to say that this liminality cannot be cured or redeemed with technology. Nor can a critique of legal violence help us understand this predicament without addressing the divide between animals and humans.


Perceived in this way, caste violence turns out to be yet another definition as well as determination that is grounded on the frontier between the human and the animal. This is not a new observation though. This identification of the Dalits with animals has its inscription in the Manusmriti, the book of Hindu codes and law. This is also to say that before the bio-political distinction between “those who may live” and “those who must die” rests the distinction between the human and the animal. This distinction has its parallel in the postcolony, where the Brahminic law precedes the secular law and its violence. The relationship, however, is one of supplementarity rather than a striking opposition. It also needs to be pointed out that the trope of the “animal” has been a favoured one in many representations of Dalit subjects. In fact, it has also led to anger and protest on part of Dalit writers. For instance, in her work on Dalit counter-publics Laura Brueck talks about the uncritical usage of this trope in Hindi literary giant Munshi Premchand’s short story “Dudh Ke Daam,” where a Dalit’s subalternity is represented by his unchanging affinity with a dog. Premchand’s failure to break this affinity led the famous Hindi Dalit writers like Omprakash Valmiki and Ajay Navaria rewrite the same narrative that displaced this humiliation with a radical break and an assertion of change and transformation of one’s liminal status. In the film, however, the question of resistance is conditioned by the subject that is, Sharmila Pawar’s status as a reluctant witness or narrator of the event and the legal activist’s desire to translate this into a manageable and serviceable narrative that can be used in his client’s defence. The former fails/refuses to claim an injury while the latter translates this silence and rejection into a biopolitical account of health hazard and technological failure. This simultaneous translation and mistranslation of the experience of caste violence reveals the inadequacy of legal activism. This is the point where the critique of violence stumbles and reaches its dead end. The lawyer fails to narrate caste violence. Consequently, the death of a Dalit remains unacknowledged.


1 “Auto referentiality”—those in which the bearers of the prejudice, exercising physical or symbolic violence, designate themselves as representatives of a superior race. “Hetero-referentiality” or “heterophobic”—in which it is, by contrast the victims of racism or the process of racialisation, who are assigned an inferior or evil race (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991: 39).

2 In his “On the Peculiar Rhythms of the City-life” Henri Lefebvre writes, “When rhythms are lived and blend into one another, they are difficult to make out. It is only in suffering that a particular rhythm separates itself out, altered by illness” (Lefebvre 2006: 219).

3 Spivak writes, “As a historical record is made up, who is dropped out when and why?” We may also add, when is somebody included as a historical record is made up. This is spelled by Spivak herself. She writes, “The rani emerges only when she is needed in the space of imperial production” (Spivak 1985: 270).

4 This has been shown by M S S Pandian in his article, “One Step Outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere.”


Brueck, Laura R (2014): Writing Resistance, New York: Columbia University Press, pp 12–13.

Benjamin, Walter (1978): “Critique of Violence,” Reflections Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans Edmund Jephcott, New York: Schocken Books, pp 277–300, downloaded on 16 January 2018.

Balibar, Etienne and Immanuel Wallerstein (1991): “Racism and Nationalism” and “Is There a Neo-Racism?” Race, Nation, Class Ambiguois Identities, London: Verso, pp 37–40 and pp 17–28, respectively.

Derrida, Jacques (2002): “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundations of Authority’,” Acts of Religion, Gil Anidjar (ed), Routledge, Reprint 2010,
pp 228–98.

Foucault, Michel (2013): “Society Must be Defended: Lecture at College de France,” Biopolitics: A Reader, Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (eds), Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp 61–81.

Lefebvre, Henry (2006): “Seen from the Window,” Writings on Cities, trans Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, 1996, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Pandian, M S S (2014): “One Step Outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and the Public Sphere,” The Problem of Caste Essays from Economic & Political Weekly, Satish Deshpande (ed), New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, pp 393–401.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakraborty (1985): “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,” History and Theory, Vol 24, No 3, pp 247–72.

White, James Boyd (1990): Justice as Translation: An Essay in Cultural and Legal Criticism, London: University of Chicago Press.

Updated On : 14th Jun, 2018


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