[Image courtesy: Tarique Anwar]
When they spoke about Gajendra Singh’s suicide, the ‘farmer’ from Rajasthan who hanged himself at Aam Aadmi’s anti-land bill rally, and the subsequent spectacle that followed, from the rally being carried on to one authority blaming the other for his death, something struck a chord somewhere; a hint of déjà-vu, a unique association, a repetition of events almost a hundred years later. I did not even need to rack my brain that much- the answer came to me in one long, sweeping thought, a breath of focus.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a professor at Columbia University, famously credited with being one of the three pillars of post-colonial theory- in short, a genius of sorts. Her seminal essay “Can the subaltern speak?” explores the line of thought whether people who have been historically oppressed would ever be able to express their ‘voice’. While I don’t claim to be a fan of her style of writing which consists of convoluted arguments needing endless breaking down of the sentences (it makes one inaccessible to most of the reading public) she raises some phenomenal points and deserves the exhaustion.
Subaltern in postcolonial-theory, to put it simply, would imply that particular social group which lies outside of the ruling power structure in a society- for example, women, Dalits, minority tribes, the oppressed working class. “Can the subaltern speak?” questions subjection of non-western-ers to representation by the so-called western society. This she does through multiple arguments, the foremost of which is her argument on the Hindu rite of Sati- it is white men saving brown women from brown men, she writes, in which the voice of the woman gets lost. While one side argues for the sanctity of this ritual of Sati, the other side declares it as nothing short of barbarity, and laws are made and negotiated in accordance with what these sides insist.
She maintains that at no point is she defending the ritualistic burning of the widow at her husband’s funeral pyre, but that the way Sati has been constructed and represented by the West is problematic- the existence of similar customs existing in western society is conveniently ignored, while positing Sati as an act of complete brutality, something which is completely alien to their own ‘civilized’ society. Additionally, while the brown and white men argue that this custom is right or wrong, it is forgotten that Sati can also be a site of agency for the woman, to choose and exercise her will to do as she wants with her life- may that be her will under hegemonic ideology.
And then she finally speaks of Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri, a far flung relative of Spivak’s, who committed suicide one sudden day in 1926. Involved with revolutionary activities, she was unable to go through with a political assassination assigned to her and decided to commit suicide, perhaps to free herself from the dilemma. However, even in the act of killing herself, she makes a point- she waits till the time she begins menstruating, so as to make sure that other people do not presume that she killed herself on account of an illicit pregnancy. Despite this conscious move on Bhaduri’s part, Spivak’s conversation with Bhaduri’s nieces revealed that they still believed the suicide to be the result of an illicit love affair, causing Spivak to theorize that the subaltern ultimately could not speak, and was given a contaminated voice and representation by the ‘other’.
Gajendra Singh’s suicide was theorized by multiple people, multiple times- what he did for a living, whether he was a farmer or not and subsequently whether it was right to look at him as a distressed farmer, whether he wrote the suicide note, whether it was a suicide in the first place or not. Maybe Ganjendra Singh was trying to tell us something, trying to make a point or maybe not- we can never know, under the deluge of political games, of each side appropriating his death for its own good, of his death being coloured by their own layers of ideologies, we can never know.