Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Cassandra’s Eyes
Misconstruing “pink” in South Asia: Counterintuitions

Misconstruing "Pink" in South Asia: Counterintuitions
© Sadia Rahman

The word extreme, so oft-used now, barely explains this counterintuitive actuality, the blood that flows, below the discursive code, the pink iceberg melting colossal neo-colonial excavations, expansions and bypasses. 

By Seema Amin

It always begins in the end; suffering is apparently endless because we are caught in effects, themselves mirages of causes.

I knew a young woman, who first knew me as a (but not her) teacher and then colleague, who having endured child abuse by the male of the species, was again abused outside that ‘safe space’ where she had been sent to learn about right and wrong, creation and faith; this latter abuser was her first false teacher.   Upon reaching adulthood she encountered what I call her second false teacher—whom she misconstrued as savior/guru: she merely replaced one set of misused robes for another, white for saffron, deception for deception—the first one had abused his power, the second one appeared to deliver her into an empowering ideology that embraced a supposed feminine power (badly undermined by her childhood), but ultimately threw the shadow of the first, as often happens with projected saviors and their ideologies, with equal ardour in the other direction.  She disavowed her former self and sank into the false consciousness of what I will call pink-saffron (regional, glocal) identity politics, built on (local) ethno-linguistic essentialism. In so doing, a process of splitting, cognitive dissonance, regarding the actual and the apparent, began. 

 © Sadia Rahman Shupta Pink has been associated with women and femininity as a kind of de facto gendering of the spectrum across cultures/times, although as a code for identity politics, it is a rather recent encoding following globalization; it is apparently due to this that various movements chose the color to signal “owning” femininity or non-mainstream sexual identities; notably, along with the NGOization of the women’s movement came a borrowing of terms and colors from the West.  This caught on, quickly, however to even those women’s movements who see themselves outside the global NGO network, but who participate in international day parades and have noticeably borrowed pink and purple to signal a shade that is not blue. No problem there, just as black signals owning the terms used to define and debase, pink similarly owns and dis/replaces. The term pinkwashing was coined, on the other hand, much more recently, at a time when ‘pink’ politics, if you will, became deterritorialized into the false consciousness of minority identity/rights at the expense of collective justice and dignity, and was even instrumentalized by certain regimes ( i.e. Israel in particular, but also broadly nations in Europe and America who pursue selective rights-discourses and their promotion and protection) to ‘wash’ or conceal other human rights abuses or states of rampant violations. In the context of women’s rights it has been ab/used to justify exceptionalism in western interventionist policy in certain countries, as well as more broadly as a form of soft power or hegemony in states that claim to be inclusive while maintaining extreme hierarchies and double standards regarding other races/rights/peoples. Thus, while pink may be cross-cultural, pinkwashing has been used to signal hegemonic discourse and regimes of rights that protect while concealing. 

In South Asia and India in particular  “shakti/prakriti” or  the feminine principle/energy in general has not been pink-codified outside the NGO mainstream; yet color coding reigns supreme in the new ‘respect’ given to spiritual-new ageism via Hindu-youtube-evangelicals like Sadhguru (who has an entire thesis on how ‘black’ has negative energy), while the fundamentalist Hinduattva regime has given new dimensions to the old saffron with their branding of yoga, and I would venture-- has managed to mystify with a reddish layer of dust the more complex notion of feminine divinity, which their raw religious chauvinism instrumentalizes for essentialized spiritual mapping and territorial expansion with in and beyond their borders.

Back to the young lady I was talking about.

Belief, was the first sacrificial lamb, in the play of all this psychopolitics, in spite of her feeling that she had found her calling, as a spiritual being by laying claim to one identity, one essentialized source of ‘truth,’ that necessarily existed by difference as not ‘the other’; the latter being the Abrahamanic and majoritarian faith of the country she sought to re-map into older ‘essences,’ purifications by any other name. In short, she converted, replacing her so called foreign Arabic name for Guri-centric daita-paths; when I tried to explain to her this is equally foreign, that such indigeneity is imposed upon other selves, other ‘essences’ necessarily entailing violence on heterogeneity, her response was that she and her guru were involved in a project of ‘archiving,’ which would ‘uncover’ sedimented essences of ‘sanatan’ cultures of Bangladesh.  It was just as if some archaeologists were looking for layers of former civilizations, and could selectively pick and choose where one would begin the digging.  Alternate archaeology or neo-colonization?  Under the buzzword-circus of international governmental agencies and their dollars/euros, with their glocal counterparts in Bangladesh, terms like ‘decolonizing’ has taken on the most mystifying  second-order significations, where the exact opposite of the term occurs in its name.  Together with her guru, she undertook a holy grail-like task of archiving the ‘letters of Bangla’ as signifiers of an ontological blueprint for place-and-faith based certitudes (ethos), where each letter somehow signified essences of place, essence of meaningfulness—while some of this was creative, even moral, such as equating certain letters with ecological spaces, like the Sundarbans or uncovering undocumented festivities, all worthy and even necessary--the very act of claiming both ‘ancient’  territory and sexual  ground reflected the ironic paradessence of our post-modern century:  Babri mosque re-conquest, ‘shakti’ and saffron-robed wizards re-instrumentalized to expand modern hegemonic spheres of influence. It is as if the wizards of tantra, become the modern pseudo-yogis and political pundits in lotus-machete position, enchanting the public with their worldly subterfuge in royal power, were now en/chanting modern mantras while resorting to the old tricks of a pure, single, essential hierarchy, a people who will retain their ‘essence’ and ‘origins’ by any means, including the genocidal impulse of homogeneity. 

With her new guru, power seemed at her fingertips, her vocal bords, her body, and her imagined territories, foremost her femininity, but in the deceptive robes of an instrumentalized (exploitative) discourse of freedom, it embodied the power of the misconstruing of the feminine and its supposed divinity through dependence on an essentialist identity, itself easily co-opted into a national hegemonic enterprise of one nation, one faith (or even one caste if the final solution is complete), if we look at India. Here in Bangladesh, something more than hegemony is occurring, though that too, relentlessly. It is only through ‘false proximities’ that such self-colonization is possible, mere hegemony is not enough.  It was this young lady who first informed me that our country, its landscape, was for her a topography of scattered energies of Sakti in various sacred sites and temples.  The imagined spiritual mapping of Bangladesh as a landscape where such sakti is scattered was very recently used as part of the trans-religious discourse justifying Modi’s helicopter visit to Gopalganj soon after his Dhaka- visit to Bangladesh during the centenary celebrations mid-March. Uncanny: this is a spiritual mapping that looks to a ‘Greater (so-called ancient) India” in a move grotesquely reminiscent of Israel’s extra-territorial mapping of itself as Greater Israel as justification of the fact before it happens. Again, cognitive dissonance.  

The word extreme, so oft-used now, barely explains this counterintuitive actuality, the blood that flows, below the discursive code, the pink iceberg melting such colossal neo-colonial excavations, expansions and bypasses.  This misconstruing of enemy-friend, sexual-repression-sexual liberation, each set of binaries reinforcing each other, in an endless chain, it would seem, of signifiers that play out the struggle of language, congealing ideologies along the way. Language plays me, I don’t play it.  For example, the way pink gets played and plays. The false consciousness of the young lady in question lies in the illusion that she can empower her body, land and spirit through the re-coding of her mother tongue with imagined essences.  Desiring to claim epistemology as ontology, hermeneutics as origin, through language-land-sakti essences, the young lady in question, sadly, was bypassing all of structuralist and post-structuralist contributions to the understanding of language, and critique of essentialized identities. What appeared as harmless and well meaning, even important, cultural activity, turned out to be the keys to the new master’s closet.

We are still in the Master’s House, it’s just been rebranded.

Between 2013 and 2016, international headlines highlighted the death of individuals apparently targeted for their “minority” identities as atheists, bloggers, homosexuals and even writers/teachers who ventured into controversial religious terrain; yet the total number of target killings added up to around 10 over several years (pushed to double if the category is expanded as it was in some articles) and got headlines like “Inside Bangladesh’s killing fields” while the more than 3071 extrajudicial killings over the last decade did not.  The most alarming of these is the number of disappearances (when the latter are covered, it is due to the stature of the disappeared, and treated as exceptions subsequently rather than the rule, while the headline ‘Killing Field” regarding minority deaths obviously reverses the equation, the rule becomes the exception, the exception the rule depending on how worthy a victim they are). The aforementioned same article has important details about the environment in which arrests (false arrests and actual terrorist-busts) have been made yet the overwhelming agenda and rhetoric of the piece and headline steers one towards a blowing up of certain deaths over others that reads like a textbook example of what Noam Chomsky described in exacting detail in Manufacturing Consent as the propaganda model and filter that decides worthy and unworthy victims. Only recently, with the carceral deaths of Mushtaq Ahmed and the torture of Kishore the cartoonist has a searchlight briefly zoomed into the field in which the killing is happening, so to speak; neither of them fit into the earlier ‘minority’ category, they voiced the majority’s horrors at certain corruptions.  Arrests of journalists continue as I write. 

Recently, in spite of several-thousand strong protests of students and civilians over weeks leading to Modi’s visit for Bangladesh’s centenary, followed by approximately 62 arrests from the student rights group and 17 dead among the Islamic madrasa students, international headlines mentioned “clashes”, “bloodshed” and only Islamicist groups (not the left, not the students, nor other civilian groups).  The largely civilian protests were not linked in these international headlines with those focusing on the DSA triggered by the cartoonist and writer’s death (their subject was corruption, not religion by the way), nor earlier protests lead by young students, such as the road protests, and university students, i.e. quota protests.  No iceberg below the tip of their cherry-picked news fatalities. The Corona-inspired lockdown that followed has seen several hundred more arrests from among the (greater) opposition.

The power of the aforementioned pink encoding of whose lives matters, has now become a pink-saffron encoding of whose lives do not matter.  And women? The number of rapes and sexual harassment cases are beyond naming, the fraction related to political corruption, bullying and systematic abuse is staggering. This is so obvious to anyone reading the Bangla newspapers that I don’t even feel like I have to reference it.

And yet. Counter-intuitive, for some. It is as if the notion that femininity/the feminine principle is not protected by state and ideological chauvinism is treated like a wild heresy for a South Asia so normalized to colonial divide and rule that it can’t discern its continuation in self- and neo-colonization. Women straddle the line between ‘minority’ and ‘majority’, oscillating as it were, now victim, now oppressor, now oppressing victim.

Collective justice, whether majoritarian or minoritarian, is overshadowed by the old geopolitics of ‘enemies/friends.’  About-face to Gayatri Spivak: The question of allies is of the foremost importance.  Who really is an ally in this uroborous-universe where head and tail perform nemesis swallowing twin? Who is a false kin, twin, proximate self/other? Who comes bearing sweettalk and leaves a trail of blood?