The police in the Uttar Pradesh capital are set to install smart cameras in public places that will automatically click the pictures of women in distress situations by reading their facial expressions and alert the nearest police vehicle. This article is my contribution to making sense of the recently introduced “smart city” project by the Uttar Pradesh government, which will trace women’s facial expressions. This is being peddled as an attempt at “securing” women. However, I will attempt to recall other instances in the past when the UP government weaponised women’s vulnerability to violence as a tool to project its own agenda.
As part of their smart camera project, the “hotspots” would include areas where girls frequent often or have complained about the most. Not every case will be brought into public attention, since an average of rapes per minute is too alarmingly high in this country. Therefore, we must see beyond immediate quick-fix solutions and demand more! It is peculiar that the latest surveillance tool relies on an argument which renders spaces as unsafe, or ‘dangerous hotspots.’ These public places, and spaces would most probably be neighbourhoods (‘ghettos’) where there is a dearth of public facilities, street lights, and hosting the margins of society. The logic of marking spaces as “unsafe” has been a strawman device to turn away from confronting the actual, systematic reproduction of women’s precarity and vulnerability in society.
Thus polarising the public around which spaces are safe for women to step into and which ones are not. This is in itself a cause of grave concern, especially since this is happening in Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, where the administration has been forcefully peddling the propaganda of ‘love jihad’ to communally divide the public, where an entire community is constantly being framed in adversarial terms with the rest of society, thus criminalising its very existence. “Love Jihad” is a structurally produced myth that is often backed with selective analytics to claim that Muslim men charm Hindu women into marrying them with the sole purpose of converting the latter to Islam.
The system doesn’t need to preempt women’s distress, rather it needs to presume it for there is enough ground to. This aggression should be seen as part of Uttar Pradesh government’s overall “offensive” against “crime,” where the government has come up with a spate of laws such as the “Religious Freedom Bill 2020,” “Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Bill, 2020,” that are directed towards the criminalisation of Muslim men, inter-faith marriages, rendering women vulnerable for acting autonomously from their family to pursue their independent life choices. The Conversion Ordinance singles out women of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, making it mandatory for them to acquire prior permission of the District Magistrate to change their religion, even if their conversion is voluntary. Many observers have noticed how this is an attempt at killing many birds with one stone — delimiting the legitimate and legal contours of propagation of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Thus marking a legislative break and a juridical continuity to the history of persecution and criminalisation of minority religion and anti-caste conversions.
In 2014, when a village Panchayat had ordered a revenge gang rape of a woman who had married outside of her community as a punishment for her transgressions, the Supreme Court in no uncertain terms held:
“an inherent aspect of Article 21 of the Constitution would be the freedom of choice in marriage. Such offences are resultant of the States incapacity or inability to protect the Fundamental Rights of its citizens.”
Further, in the Shafin Jahan v. Asokan K.M. and others case, while referring to Article 16 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Puttaswamy case, the majority held:
“The right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21 of the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees the right to life…Society has no role to play in determining our choice of partners.”
The juggernaut of Hindu Rashtra — that Yogi is the face of — which echoes the sentiment of a ‘strong state,’ has proven to crush people for optics and expansion. Furthermore, these laws are in fact used to arrest men from marginalised communities en masse. This is why not everyone has the luxury to hold onto legal positivism and other such self-deceptions, for exceptional laws won’t just be applicable on one. The attempts at serving ‘exemplary’ justice, to gratify people’s outrage could cost those suffering the consequences of unequal structures with their lives, since the force of law is always thunderous on them.
It has barely been a few months since the horrific news of Hathras, Badaun came wherein the “evidence” against the State in covering up the cases of brutalities against women was in plain sight. Given such a state of affairs, Yogi Adityanath goes ahead, brandishing the sword of the law to make himself appear as an anti-crime crusader. This “toughness” against crime seems perfectly consistent with his track record of extra-judicial encounters, and the retributive carceral framework. We must, thus, be careful to understand how the obscurities in a protectionist response to violence help the law expand its power to reverse engineer, determine and punish powerless people with all its might!
If we will let ourselves be deceived by the anti-crime narrative, then the myopia would be unpardonable, especially since the Uttar Pradesh government and police repeatedly made self-evident its side by defining the battle lines against women by sanctioning private militias which would allow arrests without warrants as per the Uttar Pradesh Special Security Force Act, 2020. This is the same government which had launched Operation Durachari, set up anti-Romeo squads to leverage and liquidate women’s systemically produced vulnerability to violence to justify setting up its own Hindu-caste Senas to “fight crime,” which is but a euphemism for preserving the mighty criminal caste order which is reproduced by carceral measures to sustain patriarchy.
In assuming the neutrality of the State, we end up pushing the working class and castes towards the slaughter house. Only recently, a Muslim teen, who was walking back from a birthday party and was on his way home, was booked under charges of “love jihad” under the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh. The police claimed that it was acting on a complaint filed by the girl’s father, but the father refuted the allegation and denied filing any such complaint. In another case, a family of 14 was arrested under the charges of “love jihad”. Not only do these cases ruin the lives of the Muslim men but also their partners who have given up the tutelages of society to pursue their love. In another case, Muskan Jahan was forcibly put into a shelter home based on an alleged complaint of “love jihad,” she said, “I am happy with my marriage and have snapped all my relations with my parents, who reside in Moradabad.”
Jahan was the first woman detained under the UP Prohibition Of Unlawful Conversion Of Religion Ordinance 2020, which outlaws religious conversions by “marriage, coercion or enticement.” Due to the negligence of the shelter home authorities, she had a miscarriage.
By setting up “smart cameras” across public places, the Uttar Pradesh government, society and the public offices will have a field day reading the facial expressions of and preying on grimacing women. These cameras will push all transgressive possibilities, all subversions of the normative social order further behind the walls of class prestige and caste honour. This will be deployed to trace and track the movement of women who have broken the codes of conduct of patriarchal society, when we have seen how rape laws in India have been galvanised precisely to uphold the primacy of control of parents over their daughters, who in their bid to reject inter-faith marriages have pressed false charges of abduction against their daughter’s partners.
Although I suspect the algorithm would have a tough time picking up “distressed” facial expressions of women, channeling artificial intelligence towards gatekeeping women, is not to ‘protect’ us but to stop us from protesting against false protectionism. The fact of monitoring our mobility thereby guarantees them protection through our confinement!
Featured Image Source: Shruthi Venkataraman via the ‘Gendering Surveillance’ website