Book Review: How Violence Took Centre Stage in Indian Politics

Thomas Blom Hansen's new book, 'The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics', argues that Hindu-Muslim antagonism, culminating in the Partition, is the violent foundation of Indian politics.

Almost 20 years ago, political scientist Paul Brass published a book that set out to explain the production of Hindu-Muslim violence in contemporary India. Focusing on half a century of riots in Aligarh, he convincingly implicated the police, criminal elements, members of Aligarh’s business community, and many of its leading political actors in the continuous effort to “produce” violence.

Brass argued that there were “institutionalised riot systems” in India. Another US-based political scientist Ashutosh Varshney opposed this idea at the time and suggested that there were “institutionalised peace systems” in India, in which various actors came to a civic understanding that put an end to violence. Varshney’s work was heavily criticised, among others by Brass.

Also read: The Trail of Violence in India

Beyond academic quibbles, Suketu Mehta’s magisterial Maximum City brought home how collective violence is part of the Indian every day: “All the accumulated insults, rebukes, and disappointments of life in a decaying megalopolis come out in a cathartic release of anger… All of a sudden you feel powerful. You can take on anybody. It is not their city anymore, it is your city.” The violence that perhaps was once more connected to periodic elections has become ubiquitous.

The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics by Thomas Blom Hansen. Photo: Amazon.

Thomas Blom Hansen, a well-known US-based social anthropologist, argues in The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics that violence is at the heart of Indian democracy. Hansen has written several books on the Shiv Sena and political violence in Mumbai, based on ethnographic work. Here he uses some ethnographic vignettes from Mumbai and Aurangabad to illustrate a sweeping assessment of the state of India’s democracy.

On the one hand, Hansen argues that violence is foundational to India’s democracy. He points at the colonial state’s authorisation of extensive use of force to quell collective violence. The 1857 revolt of soldiers had made the British deeply fearful of the violent potential of the colonised. However, more than the colonial state, Hansen sees Hindu-Muslim antagonism, culminating in the Partition, as the violent foundation of Indian politics. It is the simultaneous closeness and distance between communities that leads to ethnic and religious fratricide.

On the other hand, Hansen argues that after the 1980s collective violence has changed dramatically. ‘Lower caste’ communities have been increasingly mobilised for political demands. This has been met with a violent backlash. The other obvious change has been the growing strength of the RSS family before and after the demolition of the Babri mosque Ayodhya in 1992. All of this has resulted in the acceptance of public violence as part of politics.

Political scientist Partha Chatterjee has made a distinction between citizens who have rights, constituting the sovereignty of the nation, and common people who are hardly citizens and subjected to policing. Hansen agrees that the ‘force of law’ is applied in deeply unequal ways, but he offers a new perspective by arguing that the ‘force of law’ has become the “law of force”.

Also read: The Bengal Violence May Not Be One-Sided or ‘New’ But Mamata Has a Duty to Stop It

In his own words, “Decades of dynamic electoral politics have gradually established popular sovereignty as a dominant idea: only those who can win the hearts and support of the majority will be able to rule, and manage the expectations, the anger, and the potential for violence, of this majority”.

This sounds like a short definition of populism with its quest for the “true people” which in India is complicated due to its immense diversity in language, community, and caste. Populism mobilises the notion of a “true people” by accusing elites or ‘outsiders’ of grabbing power for special interests instead of the people’s interest.

After they (Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Duterte and others) gain power, they themselves become such political elites. When populists have gained power, they can only hold on to it by accusing dark forces (foreign or domestic) of illegitimately threatening the nation. Violence used to hold on to power is portrayed as a defense of the nation, a vivid example of which was shown in the attack on Capitol Hill in the US by Trump supporters. Populism de-legitimises the state in the name of an invisible nation or a silent majority. Its vision is unitary and pure and thus requires constant purification.

Mainstreaming violence

The main thesis of Hansen’s well-written and lucidly argued book is that violence has moved to center stage in Indian politics. What is that violence primarily about? Hansen uses Freud to interpret it as the collective desire for empowerment, a desire to command the streets and attack the enemies of the people. It uses a language of outrage and national pride that transcends India’s linguistic diversity. Part of that language is the idiom of martyrdom and sacrifice, which constitutes almost a political theology of Indian democracy. Here one finds also the other side of the coin, Gandhian non-violence.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/INDIAPIX NETWORK.

Hansen follows the usual Indological interpretations of sacrifice and self-sacrifice (renunciation) to argue that Gandhi turned the Hindu ritual complex into a modern political ethos. This has become a secular ethos by addressing not the world of the gods but that of the people. Gandhi’s hunger strikes were non-violent, but always carried in them the possibility of unleashing collective violence. It remains a question to what extent non-Hindus adopted such a Hindu ethos of sacrifice. Muslims and Dalits seem to be just the sacrificial victims of this ideology of sacrifice, although their own perspectives may include notions of martyrdom. In general, the book predominantly presents an interpretation of Hindu perspectives, while being short on Muslim perspectives.

That Indian society’s underbelly is violent would be hard to deny. Especially Dalit political mobilisation has made it hard to maintain severe inequalities without using excessive force. The other remarkable development is random killing that reminds one of the American South. A series of lynchings of Muslims have taken place in India in recent years.

In June 2018, in Hapur, a video of the crowd lynching Qasim (the victim) and the latter’s cry for help was widely shared on social media. Most incidents of lynching took place based on the rumour that Muslims were either planning to cook beef or were smuggling cows. So frequent has lynching become that it is nearly normalised.

According to one study, 60 incidents of cow-related violence and lynching took place between 2010 and 2017 in which 84% of victims were Muslim, and 97% of the attacks took place after Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.

It is difficult to say with certainty that something fundamentally has changed in India since the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is clear that the long political dominance of the BJP has allowed increasingly open violence against Muslims. This is the price for the rise of the RSS variant of Hindu nationalism.

One would like to know more about the ways in which Indian Muslims respond to their political and cultural marginalisation. Some time ago, Irfan Ahmad argued that Indian Muslims had embraced democracy since it promised to protect them. This seems not to be the case anymore.

Hansen ends his book with a chilling reference to the genocidal violence against the Jews in Nazi Germany. The violent treatment of African-Americans in the US may be a more apt comparison. Deep discrimination and random violence under the umbrella of Hindu populism seems to characterise India today. This is not a metaphysical truth about India, but the result of political choices that can be unmade.

Peter van der Veer is the author of Religious Nationalism(University of California Press, 1994), and most recently The Value of Comparison (Duke University Press, 2016).