The Smell of Fear

The smell of fear wafts through the Delhi Metro. It can be difficult to detect, especially in crowded stations like Rajiv Chowk, where it is overpowered by the musky smell of the commuting masses and the burnt coffee aroma coming from the Cafe Coffee Day. But the fear is there nonetheless. If the smell is too subtle, you can resort to other methods of detection, as fear is a multi-sensory experience. Perk up your ears and hear the announcements: “Do not befriend any unknown person… Any unattended package could be a bomb…” Or take a look at the bored security personnel, absent-mindedly stroking their semi-automatic weapons. Look a little more closely and spot a few strategically placed CCTV cameras. Now that you’ve acclimatized yourself to the station, take a deep, discerning breath and smell the pheromones. There it is: fear.

A slew of recent scientific studies – most of which involve research subjects inhaling other people’s sweat – have shown that “the smell of fear” is not just a potent metaphor. The body really does release a different odour when afraid, and other people can pick up on this smell, even if they do not consciously recognize it. What is more, fear actually is contagious; people who smell others’ fear-sweat are more likely to become afraid themselves.

Delhi must be bathed in this smell. It’s certainly not confined to the public transport system. Delhi has long had a reputation as an “unsafe” city. Historically, it has been witness to a series of traumas and partial destructions, from Tamerlane’s sack of the city to the British brutality of 1857, to the scars of Partition. The modern city does not fare much better in people’s imaginations. It has usually been perceived as a den of criminal activities and uncouth behaviour. A few years ago, the city’s image seemed to be improving. The Metro initially brought a sense of unity and pride; feel-good films like Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye and Vicky Donor showed the city’s sense of humour. Then came the shock of the December 2012 gang rape, confirming everyone’s worst fears about the city.

In this tense situation, the Delhi government responded predictably: by cracking down on protests, denying police complicity in the crime, and suggesting that the only answer to sexual violence was increased surveillance (for instance, CCTV cameras are now being installed in all government schools). After realizing the extent of the popular outrage, the government decided that it would tarnish the image of the state if protests were allowed to continue. Out came the tear gas, the lathi charges, the random abduction of protesters. Now, the Delhi police force is introducing a newly-designed barricade, twice as tall as the old ones, and topped with barbed wire, to better control protesters.

Some expressed shock that the government could use such force to instill fear into people protesting against a universally denounced crime. But those who were more observant – or perhaps just more cynical – saw a clear continuity in the actions of the police and the manoeuvring of the state. The police, as usual, were not acting on behalf the people; they were instruments of control and purveyors of fear, employed to serve the interests of the state and its cronies.

This has been made crystal-clear by the ongoing events just beyond Delhi’s southern border, in Haryana’s Manesar-Gurgaon industrial belt. On July 18, 2012, in a Maruti Suzuki plant, the growing tensions between workers and management boiled over. In a confrontation whose details are still murky, many were injured and one manager died. The media, with the encouragement of the government and the corporate establishment, immediately blamed the workers for the violence, without even trying to get the workers’ side of the story. For the mainstream media, the workers brought up too many inconvenient truths: that the managers had brought in hired thugs who wore workers’ uniforms to blend in; that the manager who was killed had actually been sympathetic to the workers’ demands; that a deadly fire was started even though the workers were strictly forbidden from bringing any matches or lighters into the plant.

After the violence of July 18th, the state went into full repression mode, firing 2300 workers, arresting 147, and harassing anyone connected to the workers, including their families. More than a year later, none of the arrested have been granted bail, and many of them have been tortured. A new batch of contract workers has been hired for the plant, and they work under the watchful eye of the police, who have been a continual presence at the plant.

The workers’ protests have been brutally suppressed. No protests have been allowed in Manesar, and the industrial belt now resembles a police state. Massive protests in Kaithal, Haryana, home of the state’s Industries Minister, were broken up with arrests and lathi charges. On the one-year anniversary of the July 18th incident, the government prohibited protests in the Manesar area. Organizers scrambled to find a new location, and a small rally in Gurgaon was attended by more police personnel than protesters. Many workers – having witnessed the full terror of state surveillance – stayed away from the rally, though many others attended.

In May 2013, when the Punjab and Haryana High Court rejected the bail of nine workers, the judges plainly stated the rationale behind the state’s persecution of the workers. The Maruti Suzuki saga, they said, “has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest the money in India out of fear of labour unrest.” Besides revealing how the law can be twisted to meet the needs of the power elite, this statement is a remarkably direct admission of whose fears count. The government, it is clear, must cater to the fears and desires of foreign companies, even if this means instilling fear in their populace.

As the High Court judgment indicates, fear truly has no borders. Indeed, fear is the lifeblood of the modern surveillance state and its corporate allies, who have spread their tentacles across the world. This is underscored by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive scope of the United States’ clandestine surveillance and data mining programs. Snowden’s revelations were met with a curious mix of outrage and blasé. Yes, it’s horrible that the world’s most powerful government is tracking everyone’s every move; but didn’t we already suspect that anyway? Perhaps this nonchalance is merely a defense mechanism against the truly frightful implications of the U.S. panopticon so aptly named PRISM.

Certainly the U.S. government does not want us to really contemplate the implications of its intrusions into our everyday lives. And the government must be delighted that the media has mostly focused on Edward Snowden, rather than on the information he brought to light. The Snowden case has become an action-packed thriller, with exotic spy movie locales like Hong Kong and Moscow. People are asking whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor instead of analyzing the content of his revelations. But even those media reports that focused on the US surveillance apparatus did not delve deeply into the most telling part of the debacle: that Snowden was an employee of a private contractor that the government had hired to do its technical work. In this neoliberal age, more and more of the government’s functions – including those related to intelligence gathering – are being outsourced to private firms.

In the world of surveillance (and the world in general), the line between state and corporate actors is becoming increasingly blurred. The U.S. military, for instance, relies heavily on private military companies that are extremely difficult to regulate and control; this was brought to the world’s attention during the Iraq War, when soldiers from the private firm Blackwater opened fire without provocation and killed seventeen civilians in Baghdad. Blackwater, trying to escape the bad publicity, changed its name to Xe, and then again to the Academi. Meanwhile, a spinoff of Blackwater called Total Intelligence has offered its services  to Monsanto, the agriculture biotech company well-known for forcing its dangerous GMO crops into unsuspecting countries. Internal company documents, uncovered by The Nation magazine, reveal that Total Intelligence had plans to be the “intel arm of Monsanto,” whose duties would include infiltrating activist groups fighting against the corporate giant. Other companies linked to Blackwater have provided intelligence services to the Walt Disney Company, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Deutsche Bank and Barclays, as well as the governments of Canada, the Netherlands and Jordan.

The centrality of the private sector in intelligence gathering makes Snowden’s revelations all the more pressing. PRISM, and other tools for large-scale data mining are especially good at mapping the flow of communication in civil society. This means that governments and corporations will be better able to predict and monitor the spread of popular movements and uprisings, such as the recent widespread protests in Turkey and Brazil. Meanwhile, the Maruti Suzuki saga is an important reminder that the more ethereal forms of surveillance – the telecommunication technologies and the data mining – are always backed by old fashioned boots-on-the-ground, guns-in-the-hand control.

It’s no wonder that the smell of fear is so strong today.

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