Borrowed images of global terror become moulds in which local networks of violence are played out.
Black comedy cannot be too far away when someone calling himself Tiger Singh makes a botch of a hostage drama in a district hospital — after refusing a cup of tea laced with sleeping pills. Of course, he did manage to shoot a man dead. But that day — last Thursday, in fact — West Bengal was abuzz with killings: three in Durgapur and one in Uttarpara from police firing, and a schoolteacher shot dead in his classroom by three criminals dressed as schoolboys. So Singh’s lone victim should not detract from the comedy. Jadedness about the violent loss of human life — particularly when the country teems with such life — is a natural aspect of everyday brutality. And West Bengal is no exception. But what this clutch of local incidents on the same day brings out are certain patterns of violence, and the ways in which they acquire a sort of grisly life within larger imaginings of “global terror”.
Modern violence has its distinct genres. What Tiger Singh gave to the crowd which had gathered outside the hospital to watch was a piece of “police action” in which these genres were all mixed up, in however banal a form. This was not just a “hostage crisis”, but it also promised “suicide bombing”, “gang warfare” and “revenge drama”. The inverted commas are important, since each of these forms of “terror” comes nowadays with its own plot and its own set of images and associations. These are called up in the imagination of every news-watcher and filmgoer with a modicum of global awareness. Tiger Singh was primarily trying to sell “revenge” — “Mujhe insaaf chahiye” — an idea that had fired up such mutually distant entities as the state of Gujarat and the United States of America not very long ago. Talk of revenge, and the inspired fidayeen cannot be far behind. Hence the strips of explosive strapped around the waist, threatening to go off if Singh’s hostages sat down. But these borrowed images from the iconography of global terror become dramatic moulds in which strictly local networks of violence are repeatedly played out. The police now suspect that Tiger Singh, far from avenging the murder of his father and brother, was actually hoping to confront his rival in the local coal mafia, in search of whom he had come to the hospital in Shiuri. This criminal network is then taken up into an existing structure of party-political rivalry, with a local Trinamool Congress leader trying to intervene, to be shot at and admitted to the same hospital. Simultaneously, in Durgapur, a mix of locals and criminals was taking its own “revenge” on the police and calling it “justice” — because a man and his two children had been run over by a lorry, and the police had taken its own time to act. The three more people killed in police firing, widespread arson and 40 arrests were again part of party conflict and coal-mafia feuds.
Political parties, local communities, criminal networks and the police — interrelationships between these, fuelled by corruption, greed and poverty, make up the brutal face of West Bengal. But Tiger Singh’s hospital swashbuckler, so desperately and wretchedly local, draws on a vocabulary of violence which is recognizably global.