Re-reading Bitter Wormwood as Easterine Kire’s attempt to critique strategic essentialism and surveillance as a “protestor panopticon”
In the author’s introduction part in the novel, Bitter Wormwood, Easterine Kire writes:
“The struggle for independence from India by the Naga people, indigenous inhabitants of the Naga Hills, has been a story hidden for several decades.” (Bitter Wormwood 1)
She brings out that hidden history which was cleverly concealed by the surveillant power structures. Kire says that the novel is not meant to be read as a history book. In fact, it’s a graphic representation of the lives of ordinary Naga people who were caught in the political muddle of identity formation or the ironic lack of it.
“This book is not about the leaders and heroes of the Naga struggle. It is about the ordinary people whose lives are completely overturned by the freedom struggle.” (Bitter Wormwood 6)
Based on factual details and people stories, the novel peeps into the intricacies of power politics and the changing power relations. Her act of writing Bitter Wormwood itself can be read as an organic conceptualisation of ‘sousveillance’. Sousveillance, a sort of inverse surveillance, consists of two French words – “sous” (below) and “veiller” (to watch). When the surveilled starts surveilling the surveillers, an alternate perspective comes forth to shed light on different cases of abuses which have been strategically tucked inside the oblivious world of undocumentation. Sousveillance is subversive in nature; it denotes a watchful vigilance from below. Dr Steve Mann, a pioneer in wearable computing from the University of Ontario, derived this term from ‘surveillance’ which means watching from above (‘sur’ means above).
This mode of surveillance gets challenged when sousveillance presents a “protester panopticon” that tends to return the gaze to the watchers. “This construction of a theoretical “protestor panopticon” and watching of the police ,as police themselves surveil the protesters ,is protestors engaging in what Mann and al. call “sousveillance”…” (Waghorn 101)
Mann suggests wearable computers that can point a camera at the power structure which tends to monitor the masses and control their movements from above. Though there is no such use of wearable computers or cameras in Kire’s novel, but still documentation of “other” voices through literature is no less effective than a “protestor panopticon”. As a member of the Naga society, she brings forth the factual details which give us the counter-views which differ from the institutionalised variety of truth. Bitter Wormwood is a nuanced recording of the lives of common people of Nagaland whose story has either been overlooked or misinterpreted till now. This article would venture out to find out how this surveillant structure works out and how the matrix of surveillance-sousveillance lead the Indian power structure, the Naga insurgents and the common Nagas into an entangled vortex. For the sake of convenience, the common Nagas can be defined as the powerless entities who treasure their culture, freedom, home and dignity. The Naga insurgents also champion the same things, but the basic difference between them is defined by the presence of hegemony which has been perpetuated by the Indian government since the independence of India from the British. The diagram below would be followed by explanations to defog this whole power shifting structure of surveillance and counter-surveillance:
This hegemonic structure which has been thriving in Nagaland through the continuous power play of surveillance , which, according to Mann and Joseph Ferenbok, “. . . may, in fact, cause or at least increase certain kinds of crime, and move crime upto corruption, or facilitate corruption within the very system it is meant to observe.” (Mann and Ferenbok 19)
Nagaland, put under varied layers of surveillance, sees the complete collapse of its cultural life; put under the strict vigil of the Indian Army and the Central Reserve Police Force, the Nagas loses their personal space which is required for the healthy growth of mind and tradition. The surveillant forces begin to use terror tactics against the public –
“Young men, inebriated or not, were regularly picked up by them and beaten until half-dead.” (128, Bitter Wormwood)
Their brutal interrogation has forced many to confess crimes they have not committed. Surveillance causes crime here, a crime committed by the surveillant forces themselves. Mose, a former-Underground-member-turned-a-law-abiding-shopkeeper, is the protagonist of the novel. When he comes to know that his name has been included by the Central Investigation Branch in the list of suspected terrorists, he loses his sleep. Being monitored all the time resulted in a disturbed state of mind. His condition worsened when the Underground also began to spy on him,
“I’d feel safer if I were alone” (146 Bitter Wormwood)
His gravest nightmare comes true, but in an unexpected way; two members of a breakaway factional group vandalises Mose’s shop and assaults him physically. Mose, like other former Underground members, is put under the surveillance of the breakaway groups. Some of them, marked as Shillong Accordist traitors are being assassinated by the spying factional groups which consist of aimless, jobless and de-cultured breed of young Nagas. Being surveilled all the time, they themselves have turned into surveillant machines; some began to surveil the Indian forces, whereas some began to follow the common Nagas. But few began to spy the activities of their own groups as well. When Mose was an integral part of the Underground, the Indian army set spies inside their Underground group. Neituo knew that some were doing it for the money and others because of clan rivalry. The reference to clan rivalry can very well question the homogeneity of “common Nagas”, and this would be dealt with in the second half of the article.
Easterine Kire resorts to sousveillance through her narrative; she narrates the crimes committed by both the armed forces of India and Nagaland. She tries to return the gaze and this very act of looking back at the institutionalised powers is itself an act of subversion,
“Sousveillance changes the relationships between the asymmetric paradigm for social control that Foucault discussed as the formational characteristics of modern societies…” (Mann and Ferenbok25)
The relationship of power between the observing gaze and its subject is quite different in sousveillance. In the chapter, “Distorted Truths”, Kire shows how truths get distorted through the media. The arrival of the new government doesn’t stop corruption; young opportunists posing as faction members began to spread their tentacles like never before. In the name of taxation, common Nagas including shop keepers, hoteliers, small businessmen and office-goers are forced to give away a major chunk of their earnings to the breakaway groups. But the Indian media tries to give it a different colour; “Civilians support Insurgents in Nagaland” – this is how an article in The Indian Express tries to re-enforce the existing gaze of the rest of India towards Nagaland. Eaterine Kire returns the gaze through Mose,
The Indian media is cleverly twisting the struggle into something else. No one is genuinely interested in ending it. Some people use it as a livelihood, toting a gun on that pretext and extorting money. Others such as this journalist here, use it to get a story in the papers.” (Bitter Wormwood 165)
That’s the point – no one is interested to end it as it helps to perpetuate the power game and bring money. The novel establishes heterogeneity that invokes a state of equiveillance, the most desired goal of modern democracy.
The Rashtriya Rifles attack in Nagaland on the 5th of March, 1995, claimed many lives. When one of the tyres of the army truck got punctured loudly, the soldiers thought they were being ambushed. So, they began to terrorise the civilians, who were stripped and beaten half-dead. Killings and counter-killings continued. Few Naga youths, tired of the violence of the surveillant forces, began to use sling shots to wound the soldiers, and one of their lead pellets proved fatal. All hell broke loose after the death of the CRPF jawan. In the month of September, 1996, a young father got shot by an Indian soldier. That youth was neither a member of any factional group, nor was he carrying any illegal material. But the Indian soldier got shielded by AFSPA which gives legal support to the destructive power of surveillance. The vicious cycle of abuse keeps repeating itself. The abused keeps repeating their abuse on others. Neituo comments rightly, “Power corrupts, they say. Well, I’d say violence corrupts completely.” (Bitter Wormwood 170)
The Naga battalions, who were summoned by the Chattisgarh Governor to fight the Naxals, began to brutalize the local population there. Like a perfect sousveillant device, Kire narrates without any adulteration. The leveling effect of the gaze from above and the subjective mode of narration get replaced by Kire’s heterogeneity; she brings multiple eyes and varied voices to show different layers of perception. When Neibou, Mose’s grandson takes admission in Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, in the year 2005, he faces racism almost in every step. His physical features and food habits are mocked at; he finds it difficult to assimilate with the ‘mainland’ India which itself is ironically a heterogeneous construct. However, Neibuo is befriended by Rakesh, a boy from Bhopal. It’s revealed that Rakesh’s grandfather, Himmat , was posted in Nagaland in 1961 as the Commandant of the armed 24th SAF battalion, and has the firsthand experience of how power works. In one sentence, he winds up the whole scenario – “We were pawns in a bigger game.” (Bitter Wormwood 201)
The “bigger game” game started with the shuffling and reshuffling of boundaries in the world map during the colonial period. Prior to 1947, Nagaland was a country of more than fifty-four tribes, out of which only eight tribes were under the control of the British. When the boundary was etched out between India and Burma, the Nagas got scattered on either sides of the boundary. Being poles apart from the existing Aryan and Dravidian culture of India, the Nagas resisted assimilation with the rest of India. Lack of knowledge helped the rest of India remain oblivious about their existence, and gradually the distorted truths about the Nagas made them the ‘other’ in the politics of self/other dichotomy. The Nagas got exoticised by the British, and ‘mainland’ India got prejudiced about this ‘savage’ race of head-hunters. It is believed that the word ‘Naga’ was coined by outsiders. Loaded with prejudice, this word was instrumental in forming an essentialist racial definition which discounted the variation among the in-group members as secondary. This in turn became a stereotypical identity for the ‘Nagas’. Being treated as ‘other’ or ‘otherworldly’ by ‘mainland’ India, the Nagas became part of a self-other dichotomy which continues to haunt their existence even now. In a bid to fight back, the Nagas began to reshuffle this dichotomist definition. They began to essentialise their ‘self’ strategically; they adopted the name ‘Naga’ themselves to bring a ‘naganess’ among its various tribes and sub-tribes. When the “other” in the self-other dichotomy tries to highlight its “self”, it has to give birth to another “other”, so that the “self” gets foregrounded. It has the tendency to expel the outsiders. In Kire’s novels we often come across the passing reference to migrants in Nagaland; though indirectly, it seems that she tries to show the flipside of strategic essentialism. Be it the killing of a Nepali migrant couple in When the River Sleeps or the torture on the Bihari pan-seller in Bitter Wormwood, Kire probably hints at the possible simmering hatred for the outsiders. The Dimapur mob lynching of a rape-accused illegal immigrant from Bangladesh (IIB) on 5th March, 2015, sparked many views and counterviews regarding the acceptance of outsiders in Nagaland. Though it was a part of vigilante justice, but the “core mob” group was found to be partially influenced by anti-outsider posts and comments on two blogs- Naga Blog and Naga Spear. Interestingly, such blogs and pages can be sousveillant in purpose. Protester panopticons can surveil their targets, and, share and spread information through social media which perpetually engages in the shifting paradigm of power-play between the serveillant and the surveiller.
In Bitter Wormwood, Jitender or Jitu, the paan seller boy from Bihar gets tortured by the factional groups. However, in this respect his condition is not more pathetic than the marginalised common Nagas. Moreover it’s Mose who gives his life at the end to save Jitu. Strategic essentialism gets a balanced representation in Kire; she shows how the common Nagas and the outsiders get further marginalised in an already marginalised Nagaland. Strategic essentialism, by which the members of a group identify themselves in a simplified and collectivised way to achieve a certain objective, plays pivotal role in the politics of identity. Strategic essentialism means acting strategically, as if identities were stable and static, to reach a political goal. But, there are no constant and unifying boundaries in identity formation, but the marginal can use it as a tool for political foregrounding. And this may lead to further complications and power struggle. For example, the rift among the Angamis and the Aos within the Naga National Council led the Angamis to demand independence while the Aos were largely in favour of autonomy within the Indian Union. Clannish divisions among the Konyaks and Thangkhuls resulted in the split of the NSCN. Both the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K run parallel structures of ‘taxation’ (extortion) throughout the regions they dominate. Caught in this power game, the common Naga gets further marginalised.
However, Kire resorts to strategic essentialism to uphold Naga nationalism. The title Bitter Wormwood itself can be read as a metaphoric representation of Naga cultural unity; the animist Nagas believe that the herb, bitter wormwood, if kept in body contact, can keep the evil spirits away. But these traditional beliefs had to face the onslaught of the colonising force of Christianity. To uphold the ‘naganess’ among the various tribes of Nagaland, Easterine Kire tries to revive this cultural belief. The novel ends with the hope that bitter wormwood would be able to bring the magic back to the Naga social fabric which has been robbed of its cultural faith. Neibou reflects: “Maybe we should start using it again. We sure could do with some of that old magic now.” (Bitter Wormwood, 243) Neibou tucks in the oddly shaped leaf behind his ear, as his grandfather taught him to do when he was a child. Thus the culture passes on from old generation to the new, and along with it the hope for cultural unity continues to breathe life into the concept of Naga nationhood.
- Kire, Easterine. Bitter Wormwood, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2011
- Mann, S. and J Ferenbok: New Media and the Power Politics of Sousveillance in a Surveillance Dpminated World. Surveillance & Society, 11,18-34, 2013
- Waghorn, Neil J: Watching the watchman: resisting drones and the “protester panopticon”. Geographica Halvetica, 71: 99-108,2016