Nandini Sundar | “We, the people” are more than a “traffic jam”

By Nandini Sundar

The rich
will make temples for Shiva,
What shall I,
a poor man do?


My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola of gold.


Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay


— Basavana 820 in Ramanujan 1973:3.


Butler reminds us, like the 12th century Kannada reformer Basavana, that movement and action linger in history even when they arrive with no one agenda or leader and leave without producing visible results against power, and that the imperative to assemble is prior to any state that sanctions that right. For those of us fatigued by repeated public action that seems to go nowhere in the face of media obliteration and authoritarian assault, it is good to be reminded that our bodies are our singular weapon, precisely because they are non-weaponised, and vulnerable. For those of us who think that the marching foot and the shouted slogan on a public thoroughfare has less to offer than a critical tweet or a Facebook post (though the latter is increasingly bringing imprisonment), Butler offers the energy that is produced in the space between bodies, the joys of embodied resistance, the knowledge that through our iterative protests we imbue physical place with political significance, even as we rely on and fight for existing political spaces to support that protest.

When marches by students, teachers, farmers, workers, evicted forest dwellers, displaced peasants, women survivors of sexual assault, oppressed nationalities are reported by the mainstream media in the inside pages as traffic jams, it is in the very act of collective obstruction that we make ourselves known to ourselves. To be sure, the kinds of public assemblies that Butler talks about – Occupy, Tahrir Square, Gezi – are extended and mediated by the media, through an interaction between global mainstream media houses and images circulated by protestors themselves through the handheld camera, the selfie, the citizen journalist.  And indeed to think about assembly is to think simultaneously about communication, both physical and technological.

But even when we have no broader visibility, or precisely when we watch the evening news and it says nothing about our momentous day, we turn from our disappointment and take hope that perhaps there are others like us who are acting though we don’t know them, who hate the same things, who wish the same people out of power, our unknown and unseen yet deeply-sensed political kin who we hope will protest whenever it is required, whenever injustice becomes more than what the heart will bear.

As I write, federal elections are due in India, and even though dominant sections of the media, as well as right wing social media, are trying their best to make people forget that they have bodies which hunger and fall ill, that unemployment has increased to a record high, hope rests purely on the belief that people are ultimately in touch with their own vulnerabilities, that they have a grounded existence in spite of the media.  But the power of the spectacle to invert life into images (Debord 1994), is so strong that it is no longer possible to see where a body begins and an image ends. A friend once sent me a WhatsApp image of a man butchering a cow, with the caption, ‘Our mother is in danger’, and when I pointed out to him that he too ate beef and this was one of the sticks with which upper castes beat his indigenous community, he had no answer.[1] Following an attack on Indian soldiers in Kashmir and retaliatory airstrikes on Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi has been so successful in constructing the aura of a strong leader, of a nation besieged and fighting back, that it so overwhelms and activates people that they no longer appear to feel corporeality outside the muscular collective body.

If our responsibility to others is located in the realm of the non-consensual, as Butler writes, so is our irresponsibility — to both others and ourselves. And the body that responds to the power of these images is a body that has been trained and indoctrinated over time. It is true that images call upon us, and we are available to be called upon (Butler, pg 109, 110) – but my body’s revulsion to the Christchurch attack video is different from that of the Muslim haters in India who have applauded this act. My angry tears at a man who burns another alive and gets his teenage nephew to film it – who does it, incidentally, with a steady hand  – mean nothing to those who honour the killer. And sometimes, even those of us who are predisposed to be ethically responsive to pain, react with indifference. There is no real answer to the quandary that Sontag poses on the numbing effect of war photography, and even the further worry caused by the power of hate images and videos to incite copy cat action. For example, the shameful image of a Kashmiri artisan tied to the bonnet of an army jeep as a human shield and paraded through town has now been commodified through T-shirts created by the Hindu right wing.

Butler’s emphasis on the constitutive relations that uphold the individual body such as public infrastructure, roads, machines, other bodies, non-humans, laws; the political alliances of the likeminded which are our silent companions in overcoming our fear, whether in walking alone in a dangerous area or choosing to speak in dangerous times; the reminder that we are who we are because of everything else that the world contains and that any diminishment of one is also a diminishment of us all, explains why we feel the need and actually do come together. There are more than clear shades of Marx exhorting the workers of the world to unite, when she writes (pg 15) that in a world which makes the precarious feel individually responsible for a collective failure, “assembly enacts a provisional and plural form of coexistence that constitutes a distinct ethical and social alternative to ‘responsibilisation.’”

But there are two other directions in which I would like to explore what Butler says regarding the performance of assembly in our current times. The first I discuss under the theme of counter-assembly when the bodies in the street inhabit various ideologies and are summoned in different ways.  The second concern I take from Butler is our compulsion to co-habit with unchosen others, but ask how we do this in practice with those who hate the vulnerable, whose racial or caste resentment creates genocidal instincts (see Fassin 2013, discussion in Praxis 4/13), and who because of their historic privilege easily lay claim to the mantle of the nation or the universal public.

The Counter-Assembly

It is not that Butler does not recognize that bodies on the street can also refer to right-wing demonstrators or lynch mobs (pg 124), or that “assemblies are orchestrated by states for the very purpose of flashing before the media the popular support they ostensibly enjoy” (pg 19).  After all, the public squares like Tahrir or Tiananmen that have enabled assembly, or the plazas that wept with the voices of the disappeared in Latin America, were built by the state to speak to its subjects… it is another matter that the people use these spaces to speak back.

In India, Section 144 of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) prohibits public assembly and is applied to central Delhi every six months – a legacy of the perpetual fear of public assembly that the British bequeathed to their post-colonial successors.  But Section 144 is also needed to prevent bodies assembling and claiming streets and spaces that were never theirs – as in the Hindu religious processions that insist on going through Muslim neighbourhoods, or playing music outside mosques. And it is ignored when the state itself enables riotous assembly – as in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 which led to massive violence across India and which has remained an issue on which the ruling BJP incites public hysteria. The demolition of the mosque was described by the Liberhan Commission as a “joint common enterprise”[2] between the ruling party in the state, senior civil servants, the police and the various fronts of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a proto-fascist Hindu chauvinist organization which is currently running the country through its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party.  State sponsored vigilantism has become the near permanent condition of Indian politics since 2014 – for every demonstration against the state, there is a counter demonstration supporting the government. For every liberal who says there is no freedom of expression, there is a government acolyte shouting that the liberal is ‘anti-national’ for asking questions. To question the BJP’s communalism is now communal just as to question Trump’s racism is racist.

Perhaps, the difference between the assembly and the counter-assembly lies in the role of the police. Butler points out that in the case of the assemblies of the precarious “every claim we make to the public sphere is haunted by the prison, and anticipates the prison” (pg 185). While everyone claims their own ideology to be just, it is perhaps the police that we can reliably call upon to tell us which is the really just assembly – anyone who marches despite the fear of being arrested. In the apocryphal story of a test to detect the real mother between two contestants by threatening to carve up the child, it is in letting go that the mother reclaims her child. Perhaps, it is in being arrested that we reclaim the truth of our bodies as constitutive elements of a just assembly. But to let the arbitrariness of police injustice define the worth of our aspirations and our efforts would be unjust too.

In the twisted braids that attend assembly and its violent dis-assemblage, the performance of assembly by the precariat also enables ruling regimes to reiterate this precarity – by showing how little it cares for public opinion or even basic human rights –  as in using pellet guns to blind stone throwing children as in Kashmir, or in calling in troops to quell the Yellow Vest protestors in Paris.

What is our ethical responsibility to those who hate us?

 We are all, in this sense, the unchosen, but we are nevertheless unchosen together” (Butler, pg 116)


My point is not to rehabilitate humanism but, rather, to struggle for a conception of ethical obligation that is grounded in precarity. No one escapes the precarious dimension of social life – it is, we might say, the joint of our nonfoundation. And we cannot understand cohabitation without understanding that a generalised precarity obliges us to oppose genocide and to sustain life on egalitarian terms.” (Butler, pg 119)


Butler’s essays address an implicit recipient – someone who needs reminding of their vulnerability and someone who seeks answers to the question of ethical obligation, perhaps seeing to understand why they must act in certain ways. But what of those who ask no questions because they believe they have found the answer  – in God, or in the Supreme Leader.  What is our ethical responsibility to those who hate us?

The question has been asked in the context of whether those who do not believe in a legal system should be given a fair trial, and the answer has always been that the judiciary must defend its own principles, and not that of its opponents; that democracies belittle themselves by creating exceptions. But this position assumes a state that is interested in power that is just.

The question has also been asked in the context of an increasingly common phenomenon the world over – workplaces, and especially families, which find themselves divided by political views. How does one talk to bigots? There are several levels at which people have sought to address these dilemmas – from the self-help ‘keep politics out of the family WhatsApp group’ to philosophical discussions of “epistemic vices”, or the cognitive character traits which prevent us communicating.

In the context of a more generalized political obligation though, and given the empirical convergence between those assigned near permanent positions in what Butler calls the demographic distribution of precarity and those signing up as footsoldiers of hate—and I have in mind here the mobilization of dalits or adivasis (scheduled castes or former untouchables and indigenous people) against Muslims in the Gujarat pogroms of 2002, or even just the anti-immigrant insular prejudices that make up the demographic profile of Brexiteers—what is our ethical obligation to recognize the precarious and their precarity when they refuse to recognize themselves as such, or do so opportunistically? To say that people did not know they are victims of fake news, hate propaganda or whatever somehow skirts the issue of responsibility.

Our problem arises when the precariat seem to think they can overcome their vulnerability on the other side of the barricades…. why are they not with us, we ask in despair, when every objective condition of their vulnerability would seem to demand it. To dismiss it as false consciousness is reassuring, but not very helpful.

Today, on an everyday basis, I find myself translating the debates over how much ordinary Germans knew of the holocaust – whether it was mere ‘indifference’, ‘passive complicity’, an ‘obedience to orders’ or ‘eliminationist anti-semitism’ – to the Indian context, to neighbours, colleagues, the people on the street.  What does daily life look like to a middle class Muslim whose milk or vegetable vendor thinks all Indian Muslims should go to Pakistan; or whose colleagues uncritically circulate Islamophobic jokes on WhatsApp. What does it look like to a poor Muslim who aspires to be a part of a nation which has no place for her? How do we deal with the especial vulnerability of a body which assumes another body to be human and is unprepared for the filth and hate the person espouses; or the riot victim who runs towards the police for protection only to find the police firing at her and pushing her back into the crowd of violent abusers.

The last five years have been an exercise in understanding how easily people are silenced and made indifferent, how easy it is to become a time server; and yet, also how many are willing to put their bodies out on the street and resist at personal risk.

Perhaps because there is no demographic distribution of moral courage; and there are people fighting against hate across classes, communities and countries, that we can still talk of ‘we, the people’ where ‘the people’ stand in for the performance of shared hopes for humane living.


Debord, Guy. 1994. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books

Ramanujan, A.K. 1973. In Speaking of Siva (Basavana, 820).  New Delhi: Penguin.

Fassin, Didier. 2013 ‘On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions’, Current Anthropology, 54(3): 249–67.


[1] In India, since 2012, at least 29 persons have been killed in cow-related hate violence, most of them Muslism; and the hysteria over cow protection has reached unprecedented heights.

[2] ‘The joint common enterprise of planning by the political, religious and the operational leadership had the unstinted support of the government in power as well as that of the BJP, RSS, VHP and the other members of the Sangh Parivar. It may not be abject in fact, to hold that the government had been subsumed in the Ayodhya campaign and had become a de facto appendage of the Sangh Parivar.” (Liberhan 2009 para 132.8)