Images of Boris Johnson at a bulldozer factory in India, at a time when the machine was considered an instrument of fascist power of the State, makes the British prime minister complicit in India’s oppression of its minority Muslims, argues LSE’s Shakuntala Banaji, Professor of Media, Culture and Social Change.
If, as Walter Benjamin argued, the aura of the work of art in the age of mass reproduction was degraded and squandered, then what can be said of the aura of the propaganda photo in the age of viral disinformation? Has it changed? Do its violent and authoritarian antecedents precede it, hidden in plain sight behind its bleak ubiquity, ineptitude and banality?
Spring 2022 has seen the UK government rocked by scandal after scandal — lies, broken laws, tax evasion, illegal tendering, dubious citizenship claims and inhumane asylum schemes are the tip of the iceberg: and all are linked to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the cabinet. The House of Commons is probably no stranger to men watching pornography: it’s just that now someone’s been caught doing it. And that might be the least egregious thing that’s happened there this week, as voting rights are degraded.
Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined the pathetic sum of 50 pounds each for attending illegal parties that broke their own very strict proscriptions on social gatherings during the 2020 and 2021 Covid lockdowns. Sunak’s millionaire Indian wife also was found to be short-changing the British purse of millions via her non-resident tax status. Johnson repeated that he hadn’t known he was at a birthday party: until it came out that there had been a dozen parties at Downing Street while ordinary people across the country were losing their loved ones to the deadly virus, struggling to breathe, struggling with loss and grief and loneliness. Some of the stories are unbearable to read, let alone how they must have been to live through.
While in any other era, and any other government, the Prime Minister might have resigned or been sacked, the police confirmation of his lies to parliament made barely a ripple in terms of Johnson’s political career. Even damning photographic evidence of ministers and aides drinking and living it up in the Prime Minister’s garden barely called forth credible calls for accountability from the supine opposition. And suddenly in April 2022 Johnson was jetting off to India, even while MPs here debated and voted on whether the prime minister’s conduct in parliament required investigation by the Privileges Committee.
The intention of Johnson’s whirlwind trade trip to India was ostensibly to soothe fears of Brexit trade isolation, to tie the UK to the massive Indian market rather than to repaper a tarnished prime ministerial image. He visited Gujarat, famous for being the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, where 20 years ago, more than 2000 people were slaughtered by rampaging Hindutva mobs on Modi and Shah’s watch and, many human rights defenders say, with their blessing.
Ironically, now that PR firms and avarice have done their work to rehabilitate Modi, this heinous massacre was one which made him persona non grata outside the country between 2003 and 2013. The only thing that’s changed since then is the amount of power he wields and the heightened threat to minority citizens. But who cares about history when there’s a photo op and lucrative business deals involved?
This trip has, in fact, accorded Johnson a number of photo ops. But the one of interest here in is the viral photograph of him at a bulldozer factory, owned by a major Tory donor, mounting a bulldozer as a general would a tank or as Putin mounts a horse, smiling smugly and waving.
That one fast made it across the mainstream media in India, its semiotics a stark reminder that true human rights mean nothing to the current British government either at home or abroad, whatever their rhetoric. Johnson later even released a video of his visit to the JCB factory, as an example of the ‘incredible partnership’ between UK and India.
The bulldozer has become known as a tool of fascist violence across India. In 2020 and 2021, small towns in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh saw a spate of highly targeted demolitions, which are escalating. These were ostensibly aimed at removing illegal structures but, given that millions of Indians haven’t acquired exactly the right permissions for their dwellings, in actuality they targeted mosques and / or Muslim residential or commercial areas. The bulldozers were out in force. They entered mainly Muslim neighbourhoods accompanied by local Hindutva politicians and/or by police with their sympathies clearly with the Hindutva far right. Residents were given a few hours’ notice, or none at all. Buildings and homes and shops belonging to Muslim families were brought down as collective punishment on accusations of stone-throwing or simply to make a point. Proof of wrongdoing was scarce, and evidence tainted; the courts were slow or shut their eyes, as collective punishment by bulldozer became a quick and spectacular tool of religious discrimination.
Worse still, it was clear that Muslim communities were being goaded and intimidated before losing their homes. Local lawyers and human rights defenders in Madhya Pradesh detail how, days before the demolitions, massive Hindutva mobs in the form of quasi-religious processions of 300-400 men in saffron, many on motorbikes had torn through these same neighbourhoods. They blared out communal slogans, insults, toward the local Muslim residents, hovering around mosques, waiting for a response. Most people simply stay in their homes or watch in silent misery at this display of naked power. A small number, incensed – have thrown stones at their oppressors. The police accompanying and “protecting” the Hindu vigilante processions took immediate action. They arrested anyone in the vicinity of the stone-throwers. Young women, old men, bystanders – as long as they were Muslims. They requisitioned cc tv footage but when it exonerated those arrested it was quietly dropped. Local press and television news spun the stories as ones of Muslim intolerance towards Hindus who were peacefully practicing their religion, or at best as “clashes” between communities.
Meanwhile structures put up by Hindus, however illegal, were spared in the rounds of demolitions. And so, without much national attention, the bulldozer has become part of the machinery of Indian fascist politics, just like the mobile phone and social media networks. And, while readers are unlikely to have heard of any of that in London or Paris, or Washington or Berlin, it’s imperative that you inform yourselves, as the bulldozers devastate the neighbourhood of Jehangirpuri in Delhi, India’s National capital where, as Johnson visited, Muslim homes and shops were being demolished, despite a court order staying the demolition. One of the features of our interconnected, viral world is that claims of ignorance will no longer serve as a defence against complicity with violent oppression. Johnson knew what he was doing when he climbed onto a bulldozer. And his supporters do too.
The orgies of hate and prejudice are not aberrations. They are now the norm. They are the norm because the highest levels of political authority, including the prime minister, by silences or dog whistles, condone it. They are the norm because elites openly spout it, without shame. They are the norm because being communal in some ways has become almost a necessary condition of political advancement
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.