Mayhem descended upon Baltipuram after Firdous Ghani died last week of injuries sustained during his arrest. Protestors gathered in the streets to pelt police stations with bricks and bottles and several objects were hurled at law enforcement officials as well. The state has cracked down heavily, using teargas and pepper balls; hundreds of arrests over the week and a few injuries. However, passersby and reporters were also injured in the police retaliation; one policeman was seen throwing bricks back at the protestors. Curfew has been announced and over 2,000 National Guardsmen and a thousand police officers have been deployed to quell the disturbance though looting and arson has been limited so far.
Founded in 1729, Baltipuram is a large urban centre in eastern Shvetadesam. Once upon a time, its port and location close to markets inland made it a leading centre of manufacturing and immigration to the country. Baltipuram was historically a vibrant centre of culture with writers, jazz musicians, singers, and sport stars all contributing to the city’s charm at one time or another. With such wealth and fame came the usual vices and by the late 19th century, Baltipuram earned the sobriquet of ‘Mobtown.’ With the decline of manufacturing, industrialisation, and railways in the early 1950s, Baltipuram has turned into a collection of depressed neighbourhoods where inequality and crime have been on the rise. Nonetheless, the city remains a centre of health and science research owing to several institutions of research and higher learning based in the area.
The latest riots in the city began on the 5th of Vaishaka in response to the death of a young man of 25 years from an underprivileged community a week earlier, on the 29th of Chaitra. Ghani had been in a coma since 22nd Chaitra due to injuries to his spine and larynx sustained during his arrest after a long chase by police officers for “catching their eye.” Such arbitrary profiling is a common law enforcement technique in Shvetadesam, one anybody passing through any form of security barrier in the country might be subjected to. Civil rights advocates have decried this discriminatory practice but the government argues that it is a vital tool in the mission to protect its citizens.
Analysts have questioned whether the violence and the heavy-handedness have anything to do with the religious beliefs of the various groups in a country that hyphenates its identities. The majority of Shwetadeshans follow a complicated and centuries-old belief system wherein the universe is controlled by an all-powerful family…well, at least a father and a son. It is believed that unquestioned obedience to this family will result in salvation in the afterlife. Furthermore, the myth continues, that the son was born some 2,000 years ago in the Middle East and was put to death prematurely by the government of those times. As a result, one of the key rituals includes weekly cannibalism by way of transubstantiation. The several variations to this story have spawned a multitude of cults that have oftentimes found themselves at war with each other.
Though this is a plausible scenario, Tina Selvaggio, the executive director of Shvetadesam operations at For the People, an international NGO, argues that religion has nothing to do with the events over the past couple of weeks. “It is true,” she says, “that the founder of Baltipuram was of a sect that is now in the minority in Shvetadesam, a sect that has been targeted several times in the past; it is also true that immigration from across Shvetadesam’s southern borders has affected the demographic composition of the various groups in the country. But the victims of state brutality in Baltipuram are not discriminated against based on those divisions.” Shvetadesam also has segregation and stratification based on race, Selvaggio explained, “that goes back hundreds of years.” Although relations have greatly improved between different races over the past four or five decades, there is a “strong undercurrent of suspicion, hatred, and parochialism if you know where to look.”
Race is a concept brought over from Europe to Shvetadesam in the 18th century. According to this idea, the moral, intellectual, and social superiority of a person is directly proportional to the paleness of his skin. The fairer one was, the more claim one had to property, rights, wealth, and status. Shvetadesamologists believe that the first migration of white people that resulted in permanent settlement in Shvetadesam depended heavily on agriculture, particularly of tobacco and cotton. As these were labour intensive crops, black people were also brought over as slaves to work in the plantations. Interestingly, there was another group of people in Shvetadesam when the white people arrived. Renowned historian of early Shvetadesam Ramona Tapper, of White Invasion Theory fame, has argued that the arrival of Europeans – white people – to Shvetadesam saw a large-scale culling and dislocation of the original inhabitants of the land. A few descendents of these original people still remain but have been completely marginalised by the dominant group. Though the original inhabitants were also darker than the invaders, they were not enslaved as black people were.
Slavery is an inherent part of Shvetadesam culture. As late as the mid-19th century, the northern half of the country – which had no slaves – went to war with the southern half – which had all the slaves – over the issue. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were huge demonstrations demanding equality, desegregation, and voter registration. While Shvetadesam has now fulfilled most of the legal obligations for equality among its people, there are still horrific crimes against “darker coloured” people. In the early 1990s, the beating of a black taxi driver in western Shvetadesam set off major riots across the country; in 1998, a gruesome assault saw a black man chained to the back of a jeep and dragged until his death. The state penitentiary system holds a disproportionate number of darker complexioned people and the judiciary routinely hands down harsher sentences to people of a displeasing coloration. “Accidental” police shootings inexplicably occur more when people of African descent are present – names like Timotheus Tomas, Mickaël Brunn, and Travitz Märkt are seared into the collective narrative of “African-Shvetadesans.”
The incident in Baltipuram is just the latest in a series of state brutality against its oppressed and underprivileged class. Witnesses claim that Ghani was dragged into a police van while screaming in pain and despite a broken leg. According to records, Ghani was not provided with medical attention despite repeated pleas and he was handcuffed though not secured by seatbelt. Past prisoners have described this as a deliberate tactic on the part of the state officials to injure passengers “accidentally” by driving erratically.
With the primaries for the presidential elections in 2016 about to start, a couple of Shvetadesam’s likely political candidates have appealed for calm and the safety of all in Baltipuram. In response to a question during the ongoing IBSA summit, Prime Minister Modi urged the Shvetadeshans to find equitable solutions to their internal difference in a peaceful manner. “We are confident,” Modi said, “that the spirit of the Shvetadesam’s founding fathers lives on and its people will learn to live as brothers.” However, the Ministry of External Affairs has announced that the prime minister’s trip to Shvetadesam, scheduled for June this year, has now been pushed back indefinitely.
Authoress Vimala Devgan, whose recent and controversial book, Shvetadesam: An Alternative History, caused much unrest and was temporarily pulled from print, is not as hopeful as the prime minister. Devgan’s thesis, which has earned the ire of several far-right nationalists, is that Shvetadesans partake in a national erotica of violence and blood – purification of the soul occurs through aggression that reinforces tropes of white exceptionalism and superiority. “There are several regressive groups still prevalent in the country,” she replied to us by email, “that see the weak enforcement of the law by the state in such cases as countenance. It is shameful that they have not been cleared of such beliefs. If Shvetadesam wants to join a progressive comity of nations, it must learn that such flagrant violations of the rights of minorities, children, and those already in detention are unacceptable.”
With inputs from Mara Karga from Shvetadesam.