NE Delhi Riots: Framing and Humanitarian Communication

On the 25th of February, men present at the women-led Jaffrabad sit-in were being asked to gather beyond the barricade on the end facing Maujpur/Shiv Vihar in anticipation of violence. Most of the locals felt safer at the sit-in than alone in their homes. We were getting messages requesting volunteers with vehicles to help rescue people from farther down, where the smoke rose into the sky. Occasionally, an individual coming back from the direction of Maujpur would be cornered by the locals and escorted to the other side. The locals even stopped me from filming or photographing, at which point I learnt that they were stopping journalists and TV news reporters and making them delete footage of the riots. One of them told me that they were frustrated and worried about being misrepresented in the media as the criminals.

I did feel conflicted when those I’d come to show solidarity with (by also sharing their stories) were also censoring the narrative. Disobedience in photojournalism is generally taken to be about showing what those in power do not want to be seen (Butler 65). However, this interaction proposes a more contextual understanding of disobedience which recognises the power implicit in the camera and framing. The very act of pointing a camera involves aggression. The prospect of being framed elicits anxiety. In this context, disobedience means not demanding photographic evidence from marginalised groups to legitimise their narrative. In time, this anxiety can be moderated by trust, which has to be earned in order to gain access.

Here I will try to understand how Kanchan Yadav (@kanchanuzumaki) negotiated this balance in the aftermath of the riots through her framing and humanitarian communication. She has been posting stories of individuals who were affected during the riots and is fundraising for them. Her captions also play a crucial role in communicating the frame (Butler 66). Kanchan has been posting about protests since mid-December, however, this paper will only look at the posts she’s made after the riots. Although her pictures are aesthetically and technically well made, her art certainly stems more from a sense of political purpose than aesthetic enthusiasm (Orwell 10). Moreover, unlike a lot of people posting about the riots, her images are almost always captured by her, and sometimes by her friend Drishti. This coupled with her lack of institutional affiliation (unlike journalists) make her agency easier to discern and productive to study.

The first section of this paper tries to understand how and why the cases (as she calls them) are framed the way they are. These questions are animated in the negotiation between the goal of fundraising and the ethical considerations implicit in the choice of using certain frames. The second section looks at a more fundamental question – who is framed – and looks at the implications of this choice in defining grievable and ungrievable lives. Kanchan has been doing commendable work, raising more than 18 lakhs so far, and is not liable to be criticised by me. Neither does the analysis that follows imply that there is a better way to go about things. This is simply an attempt to understand the choices she has made in this negotiation, to build and honour the trust with the individuals in her photographs. Finally, this paper gauges the possible role of this trust-building in reconciliation during post-ethnic-conflict situations.

Although each post (like this one) has unique details, there is a general narrative structure to the cases. There is an image of the individual(s) with their faces digitally painted out, standing in front of their house or shop which has been burned or looted. This is followed by a few more pictures of their property and a caption. The caption describes the breadwinners of the family, how many members they support and their occupation. It then details the losses they have sustained during the riots and an estimate of the total cost. Blame is placed squarely and undivided on the RSS and the government. Thereafter, a call to action is made to raise money and meet a set target. The caption appeals to the audience to contribute and help the victims “restart”/”rebuild” their lives or “get back on their feet”. Occasionally, one of the posts might include a reference to the lockdown in place due to the pandemic and suggest that we could donate the money we had set aside for the fancy dinner or night out.

Humanitarian communication can be categorised into three kinds – shock effect appeals, positive image appeals, and post-humanitarian appeals (Chouliaraki 109). These are not mutually exclusive, meaning that Kanchan’s frame may employ more than one method. This choice depends on two things – political purpose and ethical consideration. The political purpose, in this case, is raising funds for those affected in the riots. The choices made to that end are moderated by ethical considerations regarding the agency, dignity and identity of the subject. There is little to no shock effect appeal used as that could lead to compassion fatigue or the boomerang effect (111). This approach is too risky considering that Kanchan has raised money for 15 cases so far and also has 25 more cases in hand. In fact, her frames guard diligently against inducements of guilt by ensuring there is no ambiguity in who the culprit is – the RSS/government. Moreover, the shock effect appeal strips the subject of agency and dignity, which would be a disservice to the trust that they placed in her. Consequently, she is instead using positive image appeals that personalise the suffering of the subject and portray the spectator as a (potentially) benevolent doner capable of taking certain concrete steps to alleviate this suffering (112).

Positive image appeals instill a “sympathetic equilibrium” of emotions between the subject and the potential donor as grateful and empathetic respectively. This typically results in the subject/recipient being caught up into a ‘nexus of obligations’ towards the generous benefactor, an ethically undesirable consequence (Chouliaraki 113). Kanchan, however, has not exploited the subject’s narrative or facial expressions for this gratitude but rather stated it in her own capacity. She does this not only in the caption before the donations are made, but also when one sends her a screenshot of the funds transferred and again in the comments once the target is reached. Also, she never frames the target amount as an ask/request from the affected individual but rather as a requirement of their circumstances. Her process also shields against the exploitative gaze of the donor by refusing to allow telephonic verification directly with the subject or give photographic records of the subject’s utilisation of the funds.

Obscuring and restricting access to the subject allows them to receive help without losing their dignity. It also gives them agency in defining their identity for themselves, outside of victimhood and the benefactor. Through such measures, Kanchan’s frames resist the crystallisation of the subject’s identity at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. Her frame seems to emulate an approach of assemblage rather than intersectionality, to the extent that it privileges feeling & information over visuality & naming, and is fleeting (Bharucha 89).

These choices, although necessary, disrupt the mechanisms of the positive image appeal and also introduced the risk of misrecognition and doubt. Consequently, techniques of post-humanitarian communication are employed in order to animate the viewer to action. Since they are independent of affective appeals, they act as a sort of insurance. For instance, the quarantine in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is frequently referred to (as in this case) as an opportunity to think and donate. This elicits a tragic irony (if one should choose to self-reflect) where one’s dissatisfaction with being confined to the comfort of one’s home is framed in contrast to the subject’s longing for their lost home/livelihood. This works because of the self-indulgent reflexivity brought about by modern “homo sentimentalis” (Chouliaraki 121). The incentive to translate this discomforting irony into action is only strengthened by the promise of instant gratification/relief offered by the technologization of action (117). One can do an online transfer directly to the affected individual’s bank account, Kanchan’s GPay or Drishti’s PayTM. In a way, this provides a fix similar to that of routine consumerism, like ordering off of amazon.

Resultantly, the main drawback of this particular combination of approaches is that it fails to communicate the complicity of the benefactor in the subject’s predicament and thus fails to promote larger structural and cultural changes in the system that led to the violence in the first place. However, given the concerns regarding the boomerang effect and the urgency in the need for donations, it might be a necessary compromise. While this gives us an understanding of how the frame produces donors, the following section looks at how this act of framing also produces eligible/grievable subjects.

Kanchan calls each of these posts as cases, meaning they are instances of something. The very choice to frame or showcase certain narratives as instances is meaning-making. As of writing this paper, there are 15 such cases up on her instagram, of which 11 are instances of homes and shops being burnt (and sometimes also looted) and the rest are instances of only looting. One of the cases also mentioned injury and another family had also lost their daughter, but overall, being subjected to looting and burning seems to be indicative of victimhood. This is a problem because there are no instances of individuals who were already leading precarious lives and whose livelihoods have been disrupted.

Mohammad Shareef was someone I’d met during the mapping exercise during the relief efforts. He had fled his house with his family on the 24th and was staying in an acquaintances’ house. He had been evicted by his Hindu landlord without notice, even though their house had not been burnt or looted. He is a mechanic at a local workshop, but he has not been able to go in for work as he was busy finding daily rations, a new house to rent, and medicines. His wife had chronic depression for which she had not taken medicines in the last two weeks. He had three young kids whom he could no longer afford to send to school.

Shareef’s story would most likely not fit within the ideas of victimhood that have been created through the existing cases. It is true, however, that Kanchan’s frames might be drawing upon pre-existing frameworks for victimhood while simultaneously adding to them. This makes cases like Shareef’s insufficiently extreme to evoke the public’s imagination of a victim, rendering it a more difficult narrative to frame and fundraise for. To her credit, Kanchan has been helping individuals like these privately. She said that the amounts are small enough that she can raise that money herself. Kanchan’s posts have a clear purpose which is to fundraise, informing the public’s notions of victimhood does not figure under her ambit. Therefore, although she manages to achieve the political purpose, the perpetuation of unreasonable standards for victimhood remains an ethical issue.

Mohammad Yusuf is an individual whose case is featured by Kanchan. He supports a family of six. His shop where he made a living selling scrap metal was looted and burnt, but thankfully his house was unaffected. It is a pressing ethical dilemma then that Yusuf got a fundraiser of 1 lakh rupees, while someone like Shareef might have a harder time accessing relief even though they are both leading precarious lives right now. Shareef echoed this public sentiment when I asked him why he had not filled the government compensation forms. He said that others had lost more than him and deserved to get more. This represents the objectification of victimhood as a well-defined identity with a realisable exchange value (Meger 153). Even the assumption that someone like Shareef requires fewer funds as he has lost less arises out of the securitisation of ethnic violence (151). Framing ethnic violence as an extraordinary problem results in the downplaying the underlying structural violence, of which, it is an extension. It is simpler to isolate riot based violence from everyday caste, class and religious discrimination as it demands less introspection and acknowledgement of complicity from both the artist and the donor.

Yusuf’s predicament is considered to be through no fault of his own while Shareef becomes less deserving of aid as much of his condition is taken to be natural and even deserved. Pushing this argument further, we can think about the homeless population in North East Delhi. Many volunteers and relief workers including myself, walked past many beggars seeking alms without doing much more than giving 10 rupees. This is because ethic violence – considered extraordinary – causes more outrage than the violence inflicted by capitalism. The act of framing defines victimhood and attributes it with a tradable exchange value through the securitisation and commodification of ethnic violence. In this way, Kanchan’s frames bifurcate the lives of the residents of North East Delhi as grievable and ungrievable.

However, this only encapsulates the political impact of the art and not the artist. As mentioned earlier, Kanchan is also helping individuals meet their daily ration requirements and rent obligations during the quarantine imposed due to the pandemic. She has helped several riot victims rebuild their lives while ensuring that their dignity, agency and obscurity is ensured within her frame. A byproduct of this process is the creation of trust between the artist and the subject; this has potential implications in the context of the riots. 

Reconciliation can be an important dimension of peacebuilding in post-conflict situations. This transformation has four dimensions: personal, relational, cultural and structural (Lederach 81-82). Kanchan’s identity as a Hindu, photojournalist and relief worker enables her to take part in the cultural and structural reconciliation. When it comes to photojournalists in particular, Kanchan’s actions help rebuild the trust that was lost due to the inaction and misrepresentation by journalists during the riots. This could potentially help in structural reconciliation to the extent that people learn to trust cameras, journalists, and the media again. The role of Kanchan’s identity as a Hindu, however, is far more ambiguous. Its effect in cultural reconciliation is moderated by the extent of her self identification as a Hindu and also the extent to which the subjects whom she helped, blame Hindus for the violence.

The damage that has been done to socio-cultural harmony is extensive. Some of the Muslims who fled their homes are unwilling to return because they fear their Hindu neighbours. Reconciliation is not a substitute for justice and peace, but needs to be carried out in conjunction. Kanchan’s work achieves a political purpose while negotiating ethical considerations. It produces/uses particular notions of victimhood to define certain lives as grievable. In addition to the framing and communication in the art, the identity of the artist and their relationship with the subject is itself politically charged, resulting in this very interesting and educating case study.

References

Bharucha, Rustom. Terror and Performance. Routledge, 2014.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?Verso, 2016.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. “Post-Humanitarianism.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, 2010, pp. 107–126., doi:10.1177/1367877909356720.

Hampson, Fen Osler, and John Paul Lederach. “Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.” International Journal, vol. 53, no. 4, 1998, p. 799., doi:10.2307/40203740.

Lederach, John Paul. (1998) Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. United States Institute of Peace Press: Washington DC

Meger, Sara. “The Fetishization of Sexual Violence in International Security.” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, 2016, pp. 149–159., doi:10.1093/isq/sqw003.

Orwell, George. Why I Write. Penguin, 2014.

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