Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > On Death(s): Mapping the Public Culture of Death in India

Mainstream, VOL L, No 9, February 18, 2012

On Death(s): Mapping the Public Culture of Death in India

Sunday 19 February 2012


The multiple connections between human lives and political affairs have been well-explored in the writings of almost every political philosopher or thinker we are familiar with.

What is politics? What is the art of politics for? What is it meant to do? What is it all about? What are the innumerable ways in which politics seeps into the lives of human beings? How do men create, interpret and further the political objectives which tacitly or explicitly gird their existences, individually as well as collectively? What does politics do to human lives and what do human beings add to politics? Can either exist without the other? Does each exhaust the scope of activities for the other? Is there life beyond politics? Can there be politics without human lives?

The natural sociability of mankind, their propensities towards collective living and social interactions, the innate drive for power, domination, control, the need for regulation, uniformity, supervision, punitive actions and so on by an arbiter, the enhancement of capabilities, the mitigation of the inevitable consequences of an uneven distribution of talents, capacities and outcomes, the inherent faith in the superiority of a select few and a concomitant servility of the vast many, the self-centred and the altruistic, the immediate and the transcendent, the mundane minimalist and the speculatively abstract, the idealised and the starkly realistic, the grand narratives and the uniquely microscopic truths—all flow into one another in different ways and at various levels to give rise to the ‘political’. As forms have varied and meanings have diverged, contexts have shifted and contents have proli-ferated, politics has again and again shown its Inseparable affinity to the organisation of human lives. Stated simply, it has been, to start with and in the last resort, a matter of arranging, administering, governing, enhancing lives and life-chances; the centrality of the human being and human life to the political apparatus has only been reinforced over time.

In the most classical sense as well as in its abiding essence, politics has of course been concerned with the ‘good life’.1 Even when the goodness of human life could no longer be taken for granted, the raison d’etre of the state has still been explained in terms of its potential for improving and protecting the lives of human beings. In fact the claims to legitimacy of particular political regimes at a point of time in history have also rested largely upon their ability to yield positive dividends for human lives.

This long-standing understanding about the primacy of human life to affairs of the state, we believe, is no longer true in absolute terms. The emergence of death as a factor in politics is especially noteworthy in this regard and we go on to argue in this paper that much of politics, especially in the non-Western parts of the world, is now dictated and framed by the incidence of death. Consequentially, life politics is fast being superseded by death-politics in many states of the world and particularly in a state like India which is grappling with the predicaments and after-effects of selective modernity. This paper is a brief attempt to establish that the prominence of biopolitics with the consequent rise of necropolitics has virtually supplanted human life as a significant variable in state politics and state-individual equations. In the first section of this paper we undertake a study of the possible variety of deaths and our responses to these. Next, we make use of the analogical category of necropolitics to suggest that the emergence of this morbid underbelly of biopower has grave implications for our conceptions of security and the continuation of human life. We propose thereafter to show how death in a particular category of fictions contributes in a remarkable way to the consolidation and dissemination of public culture in a state like India. Finally, we conclude by comparing the effects of deaths in real life and in fictions and comment on the overall impact of deaths on the public life of a nation.

State of Death(s): ‘When Death Comes as the End’

OF all the deepest mysteries which have surro-unded the lives of human beings, death, ironically, has perhaps been the most profound. Unanticipated, unexplained, abrupt, undeclared, it is that one phenomenon which can render all advances in medical knowledge meaningless and make all claims of human omniscience fragile. The ancient man, as we know, used to be so much in fear of death; unable to comprehend its designs, he began to worship the Death-God, hoping that by venerating the unknowable he would be able to escape the cruelty of His unpredictable blows. The modern man, we also know, gloats in the pride of his power and in his ability to control his destiny and his environ-ment, yet his helplessness is badly exposed when death stares him in the face. The primitive man, insecure and under-developed in any case, had at least no reason to feel defeated by death. The contemporary man, triumphant, ambitious and confident, hates it as he knows that his defeat is guaranteed a priori in his encounter with death. In short, death of private persons in their private lives remains something about which much is desired to be said although nothing can actually be said.

For distinguished personalities and famous persons in society, death however is an added mark of distinction. These are ‘honourable deaths’, honourable ends to honourable lives. Be it natural or unnatural, the death of a well-known figure is expected to become a part of the public culture. Reported instantly, covered extensively and analysed painstakingly, ordinary citizens of any state have long been accustomed to discussing ‘honourable deaths’ of honourable persons. Our keenness to know the exact details of the ‘event’ is quite noticeable as we snatch the newspaper and read word by word or switch the television news channel every now and then to catch a glimpse of the last living moments of the person or indulge in web search to keep ourselves posted on the achievements and activities of the acclaimed person who is no more. By discussing and commenting on the ‘event’ at our workplaces, at our favourite hangouts after work, during leisure, over family dinners, among friends, through posthumous awards, memorial ceremonies, annual commemorations and routine homages we in fact create an illusion of the continuation of the ‘honourable life’ much after the biological death of the person concerned. In life and then in an illusory after-life the person becomes ‘deathless’ and is made to occupy a distinct place in the realm of our public culture.

So much for the ‘honourable deaths’. The other category of persons whose deaths become near-immortalised is the ones who are much known and much talked about during their lifetimes but exactly for the opposite reasons. Disgraceful, socially dangerous, violent, unscru-pulous, threatening, personifying crime, corrup-tion, illegality and so on, they are the ones who harass and humiliate the state machinery endlessly as long as they live and, distressingly enough for the state, once they die, they may end up rivalling the ‘honourable deaths’ as well. It is in fact their unnatural deaths that we look forward to. As we savour the reporting on their encounter with the state personnel, shoot-outs, hunt-downs, hot pursuits and such others, imperceptibly the villain becomes the martyr and we generously include these ‘events’ into the repertoire of our public culture as well. ‘Honourable deaths’ of villainic lives co-exist in the public memories of ordinary citizens with the honourable illusory after-lives of the distinguished and the renowned.

Death, we see, has therefore had only a selective entry into politics, public sphere and public culture. Although politics has revolved around the organisation of human lives in all ages, the ordinary deaths of ordinary citizens had hitherto not found a place in the discourses of politics. The only exception in this regard has been the ‘necessary deaths’ of a huge number of people (mostly the soldiers, but not always the only ones) caught in the act of defending the state at times of war. What we wish to emphasise here is that all wars have obviously involved a loss of life but only some wars have become historically memorable because of the magnitude of the loss of lives. It is in such cases that the extent of sacrifice and bloodshed of the ordinary people has been publicly remembered in the life of the state. The memory of countless deaths has served to bring about, or at least believed to have brought about, unity and oneness among the citizens of the state, given legitimacy to the ruling class, boosted national morale, streng-thened national character, been an exemplary chronicle in the nation’s history and a basis on which post-war reconstruction could proceed by articulation of new goals and programmes for a war-weary state. The lone Soviet rearguard battle against Operation Barbarossa from June 1941 till around the middle of 1944, the Britons in their heroic resistance to the multi-pronged Nazi onslaught, the Vietnamese people who braved all odds to emerge victorious and compel the mighty Americans to retreat, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Lebanese against innumerable enemies within and without have all been, to name a few, instances when conflict stories have focused on the swelling numbers of people who died in the war.2 By and large superfluous to the processes of state politics and governance, ordinary citizens had found this one way to be counted in political matters. Seen in this way, these deaths have indeed been ‘necessary’— ‘necessary’ to safeguard the state but equally importantly, ‘necessary’ to include the ordinary citizens in the life-system and national history of the state concerned, if not in their lifetimes, then at least by their deaths.

Security Re-defined: Governing Death

THE rise to prominence of biopolitics and the consequent emergence of necropolitical projects has however altered this state-and-human-life-and-death equation. Biopolitics, made familiar to us through the writings of Michel Foucault and thereafter by the neo-Foucauldian scholars, rests on the assiduous use of biopower which modulates itself through various ‘technologies of self’ and makes human life amenable to all kinds of calculated interventions and refor-mations whereby ‘existence is being lived according to new coordinates, a new game of life is now being played’.3 State power, taking the form of biopolitics, in the Foucauldian paradigm is now concerned like never before with ques-tions of governing and controlling human lives and it transpires over time that it is not so much life per se, but the end of life, rather the management of death, which has become the crux of state practices.4 It is in this sense that Achille Mbembe’s coinage of the term ‘necro-politics’ to refer to those practices which high-light the underside of biopower has assumed increasing relevance in contemporary statecraft.5 Biopower does not just nourish life but systematically dispenses away with it also. As ‘entire populations are mobilised for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity’ it truly seems that the modern state apparatus presides over an expanding grave-yard;6 cities of the dead constitute the subject matter of politics. Under the ‘logic of biopower’ it is possible for the state structure to ‘simultaneously protect life and authorise a holocaust’ of its own people.7 We also realise that this ‘death’ may not always be an actual direct death. Being exposed to death, multiplying the risk of death, exclusions, rejections, political deaths are all tantamount to giving rise to the ‘politics of death’ which sustains the necro-political projects which have, to our mind, become the hallmarks of contemporary political discourses and practices.8

Security of person and life has always been one of the most innate goals for which human beings have lived and worked in every society at all times. The origin of the most modern socio-political arrangements and institutions lies in this abiding search for security. It is this one objective that has united diverse men with different life-practices and although the devices that have been improvised in order to obtain security have greatly varied, there has been a remarkable consensus over the fact that human life is not worth living devoid of even an iota of security. In other words, the higher the level of security achieved, the more is it indicative of the advancement and progressive evolution of mankind. Forms and causes of insecurity have altered with time; the Ciceronian republic, the Grotian international legal system, the Hobbesian sovereign, the Smithian social monitor, the Benthamite panopticon, the technologically developed bio-sensitive inventions of the modern state meant to stem the invidious rot of pervasive insecurity and so on are all different attempts to respond to particular types of insecurity as well as insecurity-perceptions that have prevailed at varying points of time in human history. As a goal of human life and therefore also of (state) politics, security is of transcendental value, since the realisation of the goal is expected to bring about an automatic progression to the next higher stage of being and the ‘secure’ person is characteristically one who is free of the temporalities of everyday and has graduated to the plane of the unmarked unencumbered self. At the same time security is immensely this-worldly too, for its origin, its shaping, its motivations are inherently rooted in the ground realities of the existing insecurity surrounding us. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the desire for it is generated and sustained by a lack of it; although even its minimalist presence is very often taken to be the need for a drive towards maximising it. In absence or in inadequate presence, security is a consensual goal but a contested value.

What has however been less contested is recognition of the fact that security has to be necessarily a collective arrangement. ‘Collective security’ as a principle may have had question-able success earlier in human history but the state as the most workable and agreeable apparatus for collective living has to be saddled with the onerous responsibility of ‘securing security’ for its people.9 That seems to be pretty acceptable at first glance but one discovers soon that the state itself needs to be secure and the causality of the process is far from settled. In other words, state security need not and does not guarantee human security and it is by no means certain as to whether state security ought to precede human security or it is the security of its people which lends security to the state. This debate in academic circles as well as among policy-makers in certain states is familiar to us and we refer to this as the retreat of the traditional theories of security and the emergence of the critical security studies schools which challenge and critique state-centric notions of security with a view to reorienting our under-standings of security.10

We need not enter into the debate at greater lengths here. We may only make a simple observation: repeating our assertion made earlier, we argue that security, state-centric or people-centric, is valuable because without it many things, including human life itself, are at stake and it is this that makes a democratic state, committed that it is to the protection and the dignity of the human being, peculiarly burdened with the task of providing security to itself and to its people. It is our contention here that this public culture of ‘providing security’ which was the leitmotif of democratic states is in danger of being displaced by a morbid public culture of celebrating insecurity and looking forward to ‘dramatic deaths’. It serves no democratic purpose whatsoever and has instead led to a questionable redefinition of ‘governance’ and state practices.

As the possibilities of ‘good dramatic deaths’ rapidly increase, we can, if we notice carefully, discern an impending hierarchy in the series. On any given day we can come across at least some of these—death by accident, death by domestic violence, death due to medical negligence or malfunctioning, death by political violence, death by a criminalised social structure, death by mishaps, death by state atrocities and of course death by international terrorism. Both the print and the electronic media, the print less for obvious reasons and the electronic much more for a large number of reasons, rush to provide us with extensive coverage of each of these incidents. The extensiveness of the coverage is well complemented by the inclusive nature of the consumers of the ‘event’. The white-collar worker, the middle-class housewife, the well-placed well-salaried professional, the aged and the lonely, the disorganised busy youth, the school student, the millionaire’s wife, the socialite, the unemployed, the illiterate, the domestic help, the top boss’ driver, the semi-skilled local carpenter, the locality tea-shop frequenters, the newspaper vendors and any-body else we can come across are all found to be abuzz with news of the ‘event’. While they discuss and interpret the ‘event’ one can spot a rough hierarchy—some death-stories make for more exciting presentation and commentary. Some, say, the death of a lone aged man by being run over or a partially-burnt wife succumbing to her injuries three days after she was set on fire by her in-laws (when the stale news has already been consigned to the dustbin in order to accommodate newer and more dramatic ones), are automatically reduced to the status of less-important ‘events’. But the death of a neighbourhood slum-dweller in police custody or the kidnapping and the subsequent murder of a businessman or a train being blown to pieces with remnants of human bodies flying and landing in all directions are so much more gripping and such a convenient excuse for our everyday omissions, flaws, delays, inactions, carelessness and so on.

We the living must dissect and analyse the death-stories, bit by bit and the more we do that we cannot help but envy the dead, for in death the dead has assumed some significance in the matters of state politics whereas we continue to live dead lives, unnoticed, unimportant, overlooked. The dead hogs all the limelight, newspaper and magazine editorials are written, the police chief makes a statement, the Minister pays a visit to the homes of the deceased, the legislative session for the next day has the Opposition party representatives questioning the government, enquiry commissions are set up, someone might even file a public interest litigation in which case the court will have to add its insight to the ‘event’. In all these, the dead certainly figure in as more important than the living. The living ones are further reduced to spiritual zombieism as they perceive their dispensability and insignificance to the entire political process.

Death in the Realm of Fictions

THE realm of popular public culture partakes of both reality and fiction.11 Just as ‘good dramatic deaths’ of hitherto-nameless, undistinguished persons in reality have come to occupy the centre-stage of political affairs, so also death in fiction has taken a prominent place in our popular culture. The latter is a development of no mean consequence as we shall go on to explore. The entire corpus of stories, symbols, images, ideas, ethics, imageries, myths and fancies of different shades which combine to give rise to the arena of the public culture among a people in a society forming the panoply of popular culture of that society is an amazingly strong and emotive one. It is well understood by us that the diverse kinds of mass media have an obvious role to play in creating and sustaining public culture in an increasingly mediatised society. Such is the intrusive impact and the mesmerising hold of the mass media on our minds that it is well nigh impossible for us to imagine and create new emotions, thought-processes and actions for ourselves. Our reactions, our expressions, our thoughts, our feelings, our virtues, our vices are already made available to us from before; as though there is a pre-selected ready platter in front of us wherein emotions have already been imagined, actions have already been taken, reactions have already been expressed, virtues already cultivated, vices already shunned and all that is left for us to do is to only pick and choose from the array there and apply some of the selection to ourselves.

The persuasive power of such media-transmitted popular culture lies to a great extent in the fact that it is modularised enough to appear customised and personalised; it seems to be specific to each one of us, it seems to be tailor-made just for us alone, apparently indivi-dualised, exclusive and unique; yet we cannot help but realise that all that is integral to the realm of the popular public culture is necessarily common, shared and sharable, consumed by all, intrinsically mass-based in orientation. Its mass character is in fact central to its appeal and to the power of the public cultural artifacts and tools which create a lasting impression on the minds of the people.

We focus here on the place of death in tele-serial daily mega-shows aired primarily in Hindi but also in a local vernacular, namely, Bengali.12 Most of these daily mega-serials have similar storylines whereby there is not much that is unanticipated or unforeseen. With the slightest variations and shocking monotony each of the daily soaps caters remarkably well across class and sex distinctions, as domestic helps, middle- class housewives, middle-class working women, high society ladies and some middle-aged and elderly men take the utmost pleasure in perching themselves in front of the television screen at scheduled hours to abrogate their real existences for a while and belong to the make-belief world of the screen reality. The serials in Bengali to a large extent are devoid of autonomous content and are copies of the Hindi serials; in a few places where the content is somewhat different, it is even more pathetically copied in techniques, stylisations, projections and stereotypes. Upon observing closely we find that death of one or more of the central characters is a prominent part of the tele-stories. Death is, we acknowledge, the most predictable outcome of life itself, the only point of certainty in uncertain human lives. Death is also, matching reality, one of the most predictable parts of the storyline in the serial; the only difference is that it is one of the most predictable moments amidst a whole lot of other equally predictable episodes in the story. Be it uncertain human lives in reality or predictable storylines in the world of fiction, death, we see, is the only constant.

The certainty of death in fiction however is seldom considered a drawback to the appeal of the story. The most predictable and also the most captivating aspect of the tele-serial shows, the phenomenon of death is undoubtedly the most attractive, if not the most telling, part of the fiction that unfolds before our eyes on the small screen. Whichever serial we may name, the centrality of death in it is unmistakable. It is also interesting to note here that these ‘essential deaths’ which feature in the tele-serial shows are almost invariably of the ‘good’, ‘virtuous’ characters while the ‘evil’ continue to live forever which makes us wonder whether death is the ultimate crossover into immortality and an indelible mark of revered remembrance of the virtuous who have ‘left us’ to be surely allowed to become a part of the ‘heavenly abode’ where only angels and angel-like humans reside. It is because of this that only the ‘good’ may die, the ‘pious’ must die and the ‘unholy’ and the villainic should live, lest the latter are converted into the former through the mechanism of death. The poor, the helpless, the good-intentioned, the unfortunate, the selfless, the sufferer, the misunderstood, the humble, the truthful, the honest, the orphan, the mute, the betrayed, the ill-fated may die so that the unscrupulous, the vicious, the vain, the proud, the dangerous, the dishonest, the manipulative, the liar, the crooked, the selfish, the unhelpful go on living, for it is the viewers’ sympathy and involvement that is at stake here; the whole world of mediatised fiction will collapse if ‘essential deaths’ do not occur.

We say so for two inter-related reasons. Firstly, as we have been pointing out, it is necessary to reaffirm and re-establish the ‘goodness’ of the ‘good’ and that can be done best, not by eliminating the ‘evil’ and making him/her die, but by underlining the fact with amazing repetitiveness that despite such an abundance of ‘goodness’ in the character concerned, fate did not permit the ‘good’ to live. This certainly serves the purpose of increasing our reliance on Fate in our personal lives as well as in our public interactions, for such instances make it amply clear, thus goes the logic of the show, that no matter how ‘good’ you are, if Fate is not on your side, then all your ‘goodness’ comes to nothing at all. So we clearly know in what form the all-powerful is to be discerned, His divine omnipresence is to be perceived. His name is Fate and He is the summum bonum of our collective existences in society. Simultaneously of course, the ‘evil’ lives on because we desperately need a good enemy and the more ‘evil’ a character, the better enemy s/he will be. Thus as the ‘good’ meet with ‘essential deaths’, the life of the ‘evil’ is essential for the serial to successfully run and continue to draw our attention and engage our involvement.

The deaths are ‘essential’ for a second reason also. Let us see what it is like. The ‘good’ has died but we are given to believe the ‘good’ must live on too, for surely our collective sense of entertainment cannot revolve simply around the ‘vicious’. It is the ‘holy’ we wish to see, partly because we like to identify him/ her with ourselves but also because s/he embodies all our unfulfilled aspirations of being ‘holy’ ourselves. If the ‘good’ is indeed gone then what happens to our eternal dreams of appearing as ‘good’ and glorifying the ‘good’? We can surely not let ‘death come as the end’, the final point from which no return is feasible. Long live the ‘good’ who has died. Thus the ‘good’ must continue to live in our interests. We simply cannot afford to let ‘death come as the end’. It becomes almost inevitable therefore that the ‘good’ who has died must be brought back to life. So in seemingly complete absurdity we are required to under-stand by the serial-story-tellers that in the interest of entertainment, for the sake of the success of commercial ventures and corporate investments, and above all as a consolation to ourselves and our souls, the character is made to come alive again. This is such a routine and standard development in the realm of the tele-serials which so many of us watch with such evident involvement and passionate partici-pation that it is sometimes worth asking if after all for every death of the ‘good person’ which we view, are we not anticipating his re-birth? Death becomes only an interlude then, to be followed sooner or later—in fact the later it is, the longevity of the serial show is guaranteed to that extent for at least till then, that is, the moment of his/ her re-birth, we all must continue to watch—by the re-birth and resurrection of the dead.

In fact such is our anticipation of the guaranteed re-birth that we continue to view the programme every day at the allotted slot, waiting only for the moment when the dead will come to life again. The dead must be brought back to life so that we may continue to watch the show. As the widow mourns, as the mother grieves, as the family despairs (incidentally it is mostly the male who passes away), we watch with evident satisfaction as an ostentatious glorification of death rituals takes place. From the moment the ‘news’ arrives to the time when the body of the dead reaches its home, it is a vulgarised show of separation all the way. His room, his belongings, his clothes, his personal items are highlighted repeatedly as bearers of the person who is no more; as all of these resonate with the weight of his shadowy unreal presence we are made to perceive his absence in an acute way, put more realistically it is rather his looming presence which we perceive. This is how ‘deaths in fiction’ intrude into our popular culture, for we, the viewers of tele-serials, united in watching the same soaps and shows, know exactly how death must be mourned. The form of grief is defined, the sense of separation is made available, our monologues and emotions are all mediatised. We know exactly how to cry, how to look inconsolable, how to refuse food that is being offered to us, how to lose sanity; in short, what the living must do to mourn the dead is already given to us. We need to emulate well and since the model is neither exclusive nor specific, we all imitate it the same way.

From the above discussion we may venture to conclude that scarcely has a temporary phase assumed greater significance in our lives. The crucial interlude of death is therefore only a passing phase in post-death fictions; in its temporary-ness is its significance guaranteed. It is a tragedy that must happen and the compulsory tragedy is what in fact the show banks on, for the re-born emerges to vanquish the ‘evil’ and triumph as the final victor whom destiny has favoured at last. The deferred triumph of the ‘good’ is in fact a further indication of his unsullied ‘goodness’, it is proof of the fact that although Fate has not been with him all along, he still has not given up the obligation of being ‘good’. Tried and tested endlessly, harassed and humiliated repeatedly, the ‘good’ finally has convinced one and all that even under the severest provocations, his ‘goodness’ is uncompromised and therefore worthy of the highest rewards. The supposed invincibility of the villain is thus only temporary too, he must appear to be invincible so that the ‘good’ when re-born can teach him a lesson, earn our accolades and trust and ensure the reign of the ‘good’. What, after all, does it mean to be ‘good’ if there is no ‘evil’ to be suppressed? The death of the ‘good’ is ‘essential’ in this sense also—essential for entertainment, for ostentation, for continuity, for standardisation and, not the least, for reiteration of the virtues of the ‘good’ over the ‘evil’.

Real Deaths and Realistic Deaths: A Study in Comparison

HENCE this is how death features in that realm of a nationwide popular culture which is based on a technologically-equipped, carefully calibrated, stereotypical projection of similar works of fiction made available to us through the most attractive and accessible mass media, namely, the television. There are however other powerful media representations of death also, which have not an insignificant impact on the artifacts and norms of public culture, the only difference, although a very important one, being that the deaths portrayed thus are not deaths of fictitious characters occurring in the complacently make-belief world of predictable story-telling but are indistinguishable parts of the hard reality around us where uncertainty is the only constant, unpredictability the only course worth predicting.

We have already taken a look at the different kinds of deaths happening on an everyday basis, touching the lives of the living and altering the surroundings forever and also discerned a hierarchy of these deaths depending on how ‘important’ the person is, how ‘dramatic’ and unfortunate the death is, how far the state was involved in its occurrence and so on. The current phase of necropolitics, on the rise in the twenty-first century, has ensured that death remains a central focus of state power and governmentality. It is the pivot on which practices of govern-mentality exist; it is the mechanism through which states interact with their citizens; it is the concern which conveniences states to govern-mentalise their citizens and at the same time urges citizens to clothe themselves in the garbs of consumers and subjects. In exercising supreme control over human lives and life-politics, over administrative policy-making and govern-mentality discourses, death has become at once the most potent signifier as well as the signified in politics.

The reporting of deaths in real lives has been replaced with the ‘portrayal of the event’. This is partly of course due to the particular nuances involved in the multiple television channels and the diverse print media competing with each other over a ‘better’ presentation of the ‘event’ but it is also largely because of the fact that in our times deaths can be of so many types and each type entails a different detailing of the real-life story. Thus if police atrocities cloaked as hooligan rowdiness has resulted in ransacking village huts and setting people on fire or if people have been charred to death inside a skyscraper in the heart of a metropolitan city as the fire-engine department and the fire-fighters were not equipped enough or if on-duty policemen have been shot to death while they were relaxing at the end of a day’s work in their base camp allegedly by terrorists, then for each of these real-life stories, we need a separate ‘portrayal’. The ones who are living, we, must come to know, as fast as possible, the intimate details of the entire ‘event’. Mere numbers are not good enough; fortythree killed, seventysix shot dead, fifteen villages burnt, nearly one hundred displaced, two hundred and eightyseven blown away, almost three hundred taken hostage; we must also be told of the how, when, by whom, who, where.

The only question which is redundant asking and hence we oblige ourselves by ceasing to ask, is ‘why’. To our mind this is the success of necropolitics being played to its fullest: We know of deaths, we see deaths, we live amidst deaths, our lives are punctuated by deaths, yet there is nothing to do about deaths, it is no use asking why the ones who died had to die. The underbelly of biopower, manifested throughout the colonial era through colonial practices of governmentality in the colonised parts of the world and thereafter in the administration of virtually every state all over the world, has reached its pinnacle of success as states grapple to administer not lives, but deaths.

It is also in this connection that we note the cruel irony that lies in the mismatch between reality and fiction. Unlike in fiction where death is only a passing phase to be followed by life again, in reality, death is finality. There can be nothing more after that, it all ends with a full stop at death. In post-death reality, it is only death which lingers. The grieving family, the mournful friends, the weeping relations, who might have watched countless deaths in serials before the tragedy struck them, can only seek to imitate the model of grief that has been made available to them from fiction but find precious little consolation from such a counter-position of the world of fiction with the world of reality. As fictitious mothers await the return of their ‘dead’ sons and for the rest of the story to unfold, thousands of real mothers have nothing to wait for and death stares them in the face as long as they live. In their endless wait for an imaginary return of the dead they become subjects resting on whom states continue to embark upon a celebration of deaths in their bid to effectuate necropolitical projects as indispensable parts of the governmentality practices.

Hence we see that this is in a way the Foucauldian manifestation of the politics of death—where dying is routine,13 and Foucault’s concept of biopolitics is articulated in the manage-ment of death by the state and the political processes therein. ‘Letting die is a political action’ indeed.14 As the state exercises its ‘right of death’, the meaning and implications of life- politics also change. In all these, it becomes clear that controlling the biological processes of population is a key activity of the modern state. State sovereignty is exercised over ‘not simple natural life, but life exposed to death’.15 Thus we may say ‘if the old right of sovereignty consisted in killing or letting live, the new right will consist of making live and letting die…’.16 The biopolitical paradigm of power, we understand, is essentially scientific in nature which works continuously, though surreptitiously, to change the operations of the government.

This understanding of biopolitics and biopower has been instrumental in giving birth to particular ways of exercising state sovereignty over the population by governmentalising the people which result in a public celebration of death in a state like India. In a way this is reminiscent of a recent study by a leading anthropologist of our times.17 The ‘intimacy with death’ is so much of an inescapable fact that it has almost become a part of India’s national identity. It is a ‘tutelary sign’ in the ‘biography of the nation’ and the ‘emergence of this curious national totem’ is a part and parcel of the public cultures of many non-Western states including India.18 This paper has sought to reflect on the juxtaposition of reality and a specific type of fictional presentation with regard to this de facto national symbol in the context of contemporary Indian society and politics.

1. Ernest Barker, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), 281-91.
2. The term ‘war’ has been used here in a generic sense to refer to a prolonged conflict situation and it is clear from the examples taken that not all of these were cases of inter-state wars as understood from a conventional international law perspective.
3. Nikolas Rose, ‘The Politics of Life Itself’, Theory, Culture and Society 18, No. 6 (2001), 16.
4. Diane M. Nelson, ‘Life During Wartime: Guatemala, Vitality, Conspiracy, Milieu’ in Anthropologies of Modernity, (ed.) Jonathan Xavier Inda (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 215-47.
5. Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture 15, No. 1 (2003), 11-40.
6. Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, (trans.) Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 137.
7. Inda, ‘Analytics of the Modern: An Introduction’ in Anthropologies of Modernity, (ed.) Inda, 17.
8. Ibid., 1-20.
9. Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, ‘Securing Security: Reluctant Realists in a Shapeless Age’ (unpublished paper presented at the participants’ seminar in the Refresher Course at Jadavpur University, January 5-28, 2009), 1.
10. Steve Smith, ‘The Contested Concept of Security’, in Critical Security Studies and World Politics, (ed.) Ken Booth (USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005 edition), 27-62.
11. Popular culture, as a subject matter of academic study, had for long been a relatively less-explored area in Indian scholarship. Two very interesting recent works on different dimensions of this area are by Patricia Uberoi, Freedom and Destiny: Gender, Family and Popular Culture in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), and Sanjay Srivastava, Passionate Modernity: Sexuality, Class and Consumption in India (New Delhi: Routledge, 2006).
12. Hindi is the working ‘official’ language in India and although it is not spoken by a large number in many regions of India, it is, for all practical purposes, the ‘national’ language. Bengali is the vernacular in the State of West Bengal and also the mother-tongue of the author.
13. Joao Biehl, ‘Technologies of Invisibility: Politics of Life and Social Inequality’ in Anthropologies of Modernity, (ed.) Inda, 248-71.
14. Ibid., 262.
15. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, (trans.) Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 24.
16. Foucault, ‘Del poder de la soberania al poder sobre la vida’, in Foucault, Genealogia del racismo: 172, cited in Biehl, ‘Techlogies of Invisibility’ in Anthropologies of Modernity, (ed.) Inda, 249.
17. Claudio Lomnitz, Death and the Idea of Mexico (New York: Zone Books, 2005).
18. Pamela Voekel, ‘Book Review of Death and the Idea of Mexico’, The American Historical Review 112, No. 1 (2007), 254.

The author is a Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta. Her e-mail is

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