On the ‘Precision’ of Language: Why the Term ‘Genocide’ is So Wrong, or Who Can Use the Term
January 17, 2012 § 3 Comments
by Mohamad Junaid
[This essay is a response to the emerging discussions over the ‘appropriateness’ of the use of the word ‘genocide’ in the context of the Indian military occupation in Kashmir on PulseMedia and elsewhere on Facebook.]
But, which language? Which one language expresses all joyous, exhilarating, or traumatic experiences?
When Kashmiris are told to be precise in their language there are largely two positions involved: one, a sympathetic (if inadequate and self-censorious) one, which suggests that following ‘the convention’ will allow for legalistic interpretation and some form of retributive or ‘restorative’ justice. Often such a position traps itself in legal discourse, and by seeking to bottle people’s experiences into tight categories, fetishizes those categories, and in the end reduces the depth of traumatic experiences to mere data points on the grid of classification. This compliant and self-disciplining position forgets the origins of law in violence (and the inverse), and how ‘law’ serves to maintain ‘order’—which is, in other words, the systematized, legally endorsed structure of oppression. The peculiar claim to universalism (to create a universal system of law) that drives this position pays no heed to where, and for whom, these supposedly ‘universal’ categories of law are created, and what connection law has with power or ‘international’ law with the empire.
Second position, a dominative one, is (consciously or unconsciously) part of the apparatus of control itself—a control that not only seeks physical control over a people but also control over their language and/of expression. Here language is an instrument. It could be a language of threat–“catch & kill”, “scorched earth”, “crackdown,”—which is, it must be said, brutally honest. It could be the language of seduction, manipulation, and propaganda—“good will,” “development”, “jawaan aur awaam, aman hai muqaam” [soldiers and civilians are partners in peace]—which are self-parodying terms. It could be the language of direct command and control—utterances of soldiers, cops, and bureaucrats—which carry the weight of the threat of non-liable state violence. But most importantly, control is maintained through the grudgingly permitted language of expression, that ever-narrowing window, a manipulative medium that causes optic and sonic distortion—what one hears or sees is not what the other has said or presented to vision. It commands that only certain things may be said, in only certain number of terms. Expression of experience mustn’t overflow the permitted narrative. [Some of the absurd consequences of this we have seen recently, for instance, in the state banning the association between the Urdu/Kashmiri word zaalim (oppressor) and the image of a uniformed, baton-wielding man in Kashmiri textbooks for children—a ban which could extend logically (according to their logic) to snap the connexion between the Urdu/Kashmiri alphabet zoi and the words "zulm" and "zaalim" [oppression/oppressor], which start with zoi, to eventually even uttering the word zulm, in the hope that if people don’t utter the word, they won’t feel zulm.]
Often, these two positions overlap and play into each other.
I am here concerned with the uses of the word ‘genocide’ (in English, or other languages that have taken the word from its Latin roots: genocide, genocidio, génocide, genocídio, Genozid). I won’t seek to trace the genealogy of the concept the word seeks to represent, or the legalistic strait jacket it has had to wear to serve imperial interests, but I will briefly reflect on the chequered history of its political usage. How imperial states use it, and how subjugated people under these same states are forbidden to use it —the embargo often enforced through a threat of incarceration, death, or hubristic ridicule.
In a way, the term has become instrumentalized in the hands of imperial states, but those people who have experienced genocide or live under the threat of genocide are allowed to use it only if it serves the imperial interests. So while France can pass laws that criminalize the denial of the Ottomon genocide of Armenians, the millions of Algerians that France wiped out under its 130 year-long colonial rule in Maghreb isn’t to be considered genocide. While Shoah denial is mocked (and rightly so), Nakbah must not be acknowledged. While the US can dub Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Saddam as having committed genocides, the genocidal wars the US itself has launched in Vietnam, in Iraq, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, don’t register as genocides. In short, only the “other” commits or is capable of committing genocide. Genocide as absolute evil (don’t forget its theological roots) must be stamped on the evil Other—which can take the form of certain individuals or nations—but is ignored as having an intrinsic link to one’s own past. Denying slavery as genocide or the genocide of Native Americans rarely outrages public opinion in the US as, for instance, denial of Holocaust does. Japanese genocide in China during World War II was silenced for strategic reasons, and perhaps in lieu of reciprocal silence on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Apart from these imperial, strategic reasons, or for reasons of selectively enforced national amnesias, what matters is also the relative valuation of individuals. In the discourse around ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rarely does anyone in the US, liberal or conservative, mention Iraqi or Afghan deaths. It is always the American soldiers. And the money spent. It is critical to know the genocide of which people would scar humanity, and which would not even be mentioned. Ever. So, while de-Nazification of Germany sought to restore Germany to its previous liberal, if not romantic, identity, what was forgotten was that during that liberal period Germans eliminated 80 percent of the Herero population in their colony in South West Africa in just one year, 1904. But, of course, Germans were not the only colonial powers. French and English, Spanish and Portuguese, Ottomons and Russians all have similar genocidal pasts—pasts that get conveniently glossed under the imagery of liberalism. There is genocide of the Adivasis taking place right now in Central India, but under the hegemonic sign of India as “one nation” who would believe this ‘Indian’ auto-genocide? Who would believe that the ‘democratic’, market-friendly Indian state has turned on an entire population of indigenous people across vast swathes of its territory? Who will speak of Delhi of 1984, Punjab of the 1980s, Gujarat of 2002, Nagaland and Manipur of the last 64 years, like they do about Tiananmen Square and Tibet?
I am suggesting that Communists, nationalists, religious fundamentalists et cetera aren’t alone capable of genocide. The so-called ‘liberal democratic’ regimes are too. I would argue, with Walter Benjamin, that (genocidal) violence is in fact more degenerate when it is committed by ‘liberal democracies’ because unlike dictatorships there is an amorphous ‘will of the entire people’ that is implicated in it. It is one matter if genocide is committed under a dictatorial regime, where the power to make and execute such a decision is in the hands of the few, but different when it is committed by ‘liberal democracies’ where the authorizing will (even if notionally) lies with ‘the people’, the volk. One can hang a Saddam for the violence on Kurds and Shias, or Milosevic’s suicide can put a lid on ‘his’ crimes in Kosovo. Who will take responsibility for the million Iraqis dead since 2003, or half a million children due to sanctions before that? Who in India shall be held responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Kashmiris? In the times of ‘End of History’ where supposedly the liberal democratic order has triumphed for once and all, past genocides and their contemporary commissions are wiped from public discourse. Genocide is the business of the Other. The self is too self-righteous to acknowledge it.
The ‘precision’ of language that is demanded of the subjugated peoples is undergirded by these same prejudicial, assumptive structures. Mahmood Mamdani, in his essay “Thinking About Genocide,” rightly points out that:
The genocidal impulse is as old as the organization of power… (And what is important to understand) is not only that the technology of genocide has changed through history, but how that impulse is organized and its target defined… (That) before you can try and eliminate the enemy, you must define the enemy.
The organization of power can be colonialism, military occupation, or just rapacious crony capitalism. In colonialism we know how the native other was defined, infantilized, and seen as incapable of self-rule, and when the native resisted, the distance from the violence of colonial knowledge production to actual violence was short and thus easily travelled. In the context of Kashmir, the other is defined as those who don’t accept the Indian rule. They are infantilized, seen as incapable of self-rule, and when they resist they are either quelled through coercive disciplining and violent repression, or eliminated. There is a very little gap in Kashmir between the decision to discipline and the decision to eliminate.
Take the ‘special’ powers that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grants to the Indian armed forces in Kashmir:
Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer, or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order, and after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, may fire upon and use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area.
AFSPA includes in its language such orders and laws as the “ban on the assembly of five or more persons,” “carrying of weapons,” or “of things capable of being used as weapons.” Indian soldiers can, under AFSPA, “arrest without warrant” any person who “has committed a cognizable offence” or “against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence.” Soldiers are legally permitted to “break into houses, and search and destroy anything that they deemed likely to be used for subversive activities.” They can demolish houses if they feel guerrillas might use them. Logically, not accepting Indian rule over Kashmir is a cognizable offence. Not standing up when the Indian national anthem is sung or the Indian flag is raised is a cognizable offence—last one is an offence stated as ‘an example’ in the language of the AFSPA itself. AFSPA has literally passed the death sentence long ago on most Kashmiris. And this death sentence is endorsed by the will of the Indian nation.
Indian national territorial claim in Kashmir, with or without Kashmiris, is not hidden. It is brazenly stated and voted for in the Indian Parliament. Denial of the right to self-determination to Kashmiris is the denial of Kashmiris as a people. With 700,000 Indian soldiers in Kashmir, it is not unimaginable that they “may consider it necessary” to carry out the ‘spirit’ behind AFSPA if they feel Kashmiris are a threat to the sacred claims of sovereign-territoriality. Palestinian Nakba was a result of the Zionist slogan of Jews being a ‘People without Land’ and Palestine being a ‘Land without People’. Fantasies of territory fuelled the impulses of genocide.
But back to the austerities of language. We are told to wait for it to happen before we may call it a genocide. This is genocide ‘as an event’. In the meantime, the build-up to that event requires a more precise vocabulary. Legalistic frameworks, however, don’t have a language for such build-ups. Law needs facts. Numbers. Events. Of course, when the subjugated prepare to resist even the build-ups to those possible resistances are accepted as proof enough for the certainty of the event, the event that may never come. “Terrorists” don’t have to terrorize to be called terrorists. Mere suspicion of ‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer, or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces’ is good enough—and ‘ mere suspicions’ have complex national histories behind them, as we know. We are told ‘intention’ is all that matters. It is easier to assign intention to individuals. It is harder to do so for nations. And hardest to assign to ‘liberal democratic’ states, which use several layers of obfuscation to camouflage the ruling class.
Now, if one nation (Indian state acts in the name of the putative ‘one nation’, and ostensibly in the name of Kashmiris as well) is hoping, expecting, thinking, planning, or executing a strategy aimed at annihilation of a people as a people, is it genocide? If India wants Kashmiris to stop thinking of themselves as a people with national rights, and dissolve into accepting themselves as Indian—and uses different means (which can’t but be violent) to achieve it, is that genocide? Does the continued subjugation of a people under conditions of indefinite military occupation constitute genocide (for it is aimed at a people as a people)? In such a situation, even though the actual annihilation may not have been accomplished, and the decision to do so may remain unverbalized (even though AFSPA verbalizes it implicitly), can we not surmise that the occupying power ultimately hopes for such an outcome? Hindu nationalists desire Kashmir’s territory without its people, and “officially” Indian government states Kashmir to be an “integral part” of India (of Bharat Mata)—territorial desires expressed honestly and dishonestly, respectively. From India many voices call for ‘separatists,’ who are the overwhelming majority in Kashmir, to leave Kashmir, and urge, campaign for, the Indian state to be ‘tough’ on them. Are these not threats of genocidal violence that hang on Kashmiris as a people? Shall the creation of certain conditions in which an event has a real possibility of occurring be construed to constitute, post-facto, part of that event? Is the event only the moment of its occurrence? We do write the pre-history of Holocaust in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag, in the German hyperinflation of 1923, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, and even in young Adolf’s broken dream of becoming an artist!
Let’s consider for a while like delusional Physicalists that we must search for a precise language that captures the experience as it really is—which would mean “genocide” hasn’t happened unless it has been fully and utterly accomplished. And let’s take this question away from the gloomy discussion on genocide. I wonder what will happen to poetry, for instance. Wouldn’t all poetry be considered superfluous and irresponsible? When a mother in Kashmir, in anguish, complains to God:Mea mah poshav kaerim zanh damnas thaph kanden manz chi tavay nalaan kaeteh Flowers never touched my garment’s hem Too many are anguished thus, trapped in barbs Samaan kar loy chum wanne-hai panun haal chi zayil nokteh waen ravaan kaeteh When I gather myself I will tell You of my condition And about all the finer points of life that have been lost Be laraan treish-e haetsch chas soyi manzil wattan manz chukh tschi thaer thavaan kaeteh I run in thirst toward my destination And You, how You keep barricading my way!
Who can say her poetic language is precise? But what precise terms exist than can capture her feelings better? Should these questions even be asked? Wittgenstein wondered: “How can I go so far as to try to use language to get between pain and its expression?”
Kashmiris have often used some of these following terms to express their experience of occupation: zulm te jabr, zulm te sitam, ber’rahm azaab, azaab’un shadeed, Karbala, qatl-e-aam, mili masaib, trath, taavan. Somewhere in between there is a reference to the fear of genocide. Yim karan yeti qatl-e-aam. A fear of becoming the potential objects for genocide. Of the distinct feeling of being prepared for this looming possibility. Kashmiris don’t use the English term ‘genocide’ though. Perhaps there is already enough familiarity with the way the term has been used historically. Perhaps it is not important to provoke bouts of hysteria among the occupiers, which a mere mention of the word certainly will. India, since it always seeks a Western validation for its ‘civilizational ethos’, cares only if the word is mentioned in English. Perhaps Kashmiris already know that the giants of Wikipedia will hold them accountable to their understanding of ‘precision’.
The responsibility to understand is not only of those who speak, plead, or narrate. It also requires an ethic of listening: listening with compassion. Especially when those who narrate are permitted only a very narrow sliver of language to express, such compassionate listening, over the rough barriers of incomprehensible words and imprecise language, opens important and collaborative channels of communication against power. Imprecision then can be appreciated as being profoundly against the strictures of power. Precision, in contrast, is following the rules of the game laid out by the oppressor. To say there is genocide in Kashmir is, therefore, both imprecise and precise. It is imprecise according to the language uses of the empire; it is precise because it is a real process that has long started and is becoming inevitable under the present order of things.