Friday, September 29, 2017

Newton - from an anthropologist-cum-government employee's self

Newton tells a tale of a government employee who wanted to perform his duty, nothing more and nothing less, of course, the duty appears to be a tough one- the one which people are not happy to perform. I am not a movie critic nor I have the capacity to review anything let alone a movie review, but this is going to be an experience of an interface of my government servant self and anthropologist self with the narrative called Newton.

The storyline in sum:

The story is that of a newly recruited government official, Mr. Newton and his experience in performing the presiding officer's duty at Maoist hotbed of Dandakaranya. He was equipped with pen, paper and presiding officers' diary and an already terrorised polling team. They reach at a nearby Central Reserve Police Camp by helicopter and then by army jeep to spend the night at a CRPF camp. Next day, early morning he was told by the CRPF commander  not to go to the place. After some  near-fight situation he made CRPF team to go to the polling booth by crossing a jungle terrain. He set up booth in an abandoned school building within a burned down village, apparently by the CRPF themselves. The BLO officer (a government employee, originally from the neighbouring area who carries updated voters' list) - a local Gond lady accompanies them and no one came to vote until there was an international media house planning to cover India's 'deep democracy.' Suddenly the CRPF personnel went to the nearby two villages to bring men by beating them up. Meanwhile, Newton tried to make them understand what voting is, what leader means and why parliament is important. As expected they couldn't understand and the voting procedure became a farce. Newton tried  a lot but failed. However, Gonds did understand their own rules, own Patel's (village chief) potential and wanted their Patel to represent them to Delhi. However, voting was staged and the international media house reports India's beautiful democratic procedure even in the remotest corner as the booth was set up for only 76 voters. Soon after the media left, there was a sound of firing and the CRPF commander instructed them to leave the place. The commander wanted to wrap up the process much earlier but since Newton protested he had to stay. However, since there was a sound of firing, Newton and his team started to evacuate but Newton sensed with few hints of the BLO lady that it was all staged. He first fled to reach back the polling station chased by the CRPF jawans to finally get caught and dragged back. On his way he met a group of young men coming to vote. Since the CRPF tried push them away Newton took up arm from the commander and compelled them to set up a temporary booth in the middle of the jungle. After the voting process was over, he gave away the arms, he was severely beaten up by the CRPF jawans. The film ends with Newton wearing a neck collar and the BLO lady making a visit to his office. He seems to be the same person working busily according to schedule.

The parallel movie inside the theatre

There was a parallel movie running inside the theatre mostly through passing comments and laughter.

A few examples might suffice the contention

Newton asking one of the election trainers about the reasons and possible measures to transform the work culture of the public offices. The trainer says 'you will be like them soon'
People say - thhik bolechhe, rightly said and laughter breaks
The trainer continues '... or just continue your duty honestly and remember honest is not something to be pride about, it should be a regular thing, you are not doing anything extra'
silence from the spectators and a few commented 'can this happen? Meaning this cannot happen.'

When Newton instructs and imposes his 'magistrate' authority as presiding officer over CRPF
People - 'he is gone mad'

When village leader fails to understand the system of parliament and voting
People - loud laughter and a few passing comments 'shame on our country', 'Arrey these people are like this only'

When CRPF pushes the villagers, even beat them up to make voter turn out
People - laughter continues

When CRPF asks one of the old village lady to cook one of her livestock for delicious deshi chicken for their lunch.
People- uff deshi chicken, and laughter.

When CRPF finally beat up Newton
Yes laughter again. Some even said why should he took up the gun and challenged authority.

There were several fine tuned and unsaid moments deeply embedded in the film that actually created a parallel narrative of authority relations, power positions and helplessness of all characters involved.

Experiences of a government employee

everything can't be said being a public servant but there are dimensions that can be revealed. Let me just jot down quickly. I know you are already looking at the size of this manuscript!

Dimensions of misuse of authority positions-

Lets break the stereotype that people in authority exercise authority and often do things which are white collar crime or misuse of power or plain and simple corruption. Interestingly, whoever posseses whatever authority has a potential to misuse it. For example if you are a group D staff in charge of giving photocopy of a particular application forms you can tell your superior 'sir the copies are exhausted please come tomorrow.' If that superior staff is a newly recruited, the one who might believe in you, will go back and come again. Likewise, the superior official one day will find out that group D staff will do things easily if he is given a cigarette. Or may be some affiliation to an organisation or a particular superior or senior person would help! Its a vicious cycle that continues. I began with the lowest position but it continues at different levels and with complex combinations under a catchall umbrella term 'office politics'. Newton has precisely shown with a fun filled feature these issues, often subtly. His supposedly protectors, supposedly working under him because of his magistrate power given by Election Commission of India has been undermined by the CRPF jawans over and over again first through verbally and then physically and all of them remain unchanged.

Corruption in everyday offices

There are certain things which we already have forgotten as corruption. For example to reach office late or to leave early, to do task unmindfully, to loose papers or not to search for the one because searching for one is strenuous but getting another photocopy from the incumbent is easy. We have forgotten that giving services in exchange of money (or Gift in Mauss's term!) because you occupy certain authority position is corruption (it includes private tuition as well). One major issue that Newton addresses is precisely this form of corruption. His complain in his everyday office life and then casual attitude of the polling team portrays these forms of corruption well. Dreze and Sen (1996, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity) has referred to these forms in their book quite effectively.

Corruption and its acceptance - corruption as culture

Newton brings the accepted dimensions of corruption beautifully. The spokesperson of the Gond tribe happens to be the BLO lady who often says 'humari iyha aisa hi hota hai'- this is what happens here when they see no one was coming to vote or CRPF forcefully brings men to vote. When the tribal had to come, they were asked if they think this voting will bring any change in life and one of them replied 'no' and then continued to shake his head. A spectator would wait for a while if there is any addition to that answer- however, he utters no again.
As the CRPF people forcefully brought men, they seem to be accepting such beating naturally and as instructed started to cook the deshi chicken - their extremely valuable livestock.

Election experience - no one is Newton

Not everything that a presiding officer experiences can be documented. Not only because of the nature of secrecy but because of his own inaction (for a variety of reasons) that might land him to a big trouble - yes, no one is Newton. Election happens to be an extremely difficult situation for everyone. Most of the government employee is afraid of election and some of them often engages in corrupt practices including bribing the superiors or block office officials to drop their names. It was also shown in Newton. However, the director doesn't know or didn't want to spend time on but the nature of chaos of polling would have added to the black comedy meaningfully. A person would loose all his strength just in collecting materials and then reaching the polling station in scorching heat of May Indian summer. Then there are (useless) supposedly the most powerful paper works and a presiding officer is expected to sign a thousand times perhaps. These strenuous works are the checks and balances of democracy. Papers that no one reads. As a presiding officer Newton asked what will happen if Maoist comes the trainer brilliantly told not to play a hero, and give them everything they need as there will be re-election.

None of the officials ever thought of or made plan for what to do if CRPF or the protectors play dirty! Precisely what happens when you go to booth. If the forces cooperate you can achieve a fair election. All polling personnel know they can dispose their duties if there is a central force protection and if there isn't any, they cannot do anything and have to compromise.

I know presiding officers beg to the polling agents to stop rigging after a while and also take upper-hand when  there is a strong security assistance and keep the election run smoothly.
Newton represents an unique case in an unique place and yes, no one is newton in real life! But wait there are many Newtons inside, waiting for the right situation that never comes.

Experience of an anthropologist

As an anthropologist working in the area of politics and governance I will focus on certain brilliant portrayal of larger and often theoretical issues that Newton addresses.

First the question of multiplicity and democratic failure. As a pragmatic cultural relativist I see the conflict of tribal world view, their system of governance and political authority as completely with parliamentary democracy as 'natural'. When asked for their choice over their representatives they readily identified their 'Patel' - the village headman. A quite obvious choice from their worldview but a comedy for us hence the spectators laughed. The laughter is not to be cherished, the laughter is representing civilisation and tribal world interface where the tribal people are supposed to get marginalised over and over again.

Second, to enhance the nature of marginalization we have developed elaborate system: Administration, Judiciary, Education and Security forces. Hence, when the BLO lady, a school teacher by occupation, says she finds it extremely difficult to teach these people because they don't understand Hindi and there is no book in Gondi language, it doesn't only say about language supremacy and hegemony but also questions why these people need to learn them at all - some supposedly 'superior' civilisational system? The answer is easy, of course, to make them discipline in hegemonic terms and conditions of the civilisation, yes you can remember Foucault here.

Third, the behavioural supremacy of the representatives of the state. They exercised force and violence, snatched away village livestock, burned down their villages. All are summed up in BLO's words. When Newton sees some scripts of protests on the wall of the shattered school building he asked 'did the villager write all these?' The BLO lady responds 'some reaction is expected isn't it sir? Especially when your village is burned down!'

Yes, during my fieldwork days I have seen places where Maoists are the sole help providers, running parallel government because state never looked at them, never cared for. There are other places where people are kicked of regularly by both the Maoists and the state.

In sum, newton portrays the naked reality of the entire issues of governance, human rights and helplessness as framed in AC rooms and executed top down. It also projects the experiences of a few people who still wants to work and bring changes. Newton  as a black comedy brings laughter to the spectators because doing what is right is increasingly seen as stupidity. Perhaps this is the time we think, rethink and try to internalise the over used quote 'be the change you want to see!' I am not sure if this quote even holds any significance especially after watching Newton and seeing the parallel movie among the spectators in the theatre, but yes we can and we should hope.