Why Does Exposure of Majoritarian Violence Not Lead to Justice and Empathy?

Moyukh Chatterjee's book 'Composing Violence: The Limits of Exposure and the Making of Minorities' suggests that majoritarian violence is not a bug of democracy and may well be a feature. 

If there is one thing we, citizens of self-described democratic republics, cling to, it is the notion that democracy is a public good and that its fundamental goodness is unquestionable. We believe that the will of the people ultimately bends the arc of representation towards justice, that judicial institutions correct the course of democracy when it begins to fail. What we rarely pause to consider is that democracy is underwritten by majoritarian sentiments and values. It is, after all, known as “majority rule” in popular parlance. 

If a government is driven by the need to secure majority mandates, what incentives does it have to secure minority rights? In fact, if all institutions are ultimately answerable to majoritarian sentiments, if the creation of an unyielding majority is a constant political necessity, it stands to reason that the re-creation of minorities is also essential. Moyukh Chatterjee’s Composing Violence: The Limits of Exposure and the Making of Minorities addresses this question in direct and rather unsettling ways. 

The author begins with fragments of memories of the 2002 violence in Gujarat, bringing us not so much of the shock of violence or the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of communal violence, but reminding us of something more shocking yet: ‘the juxtaposition of mass destruction with mass pleasure’. He goes on to question the politics of ‘exposure’ of mass violence directed at minorities. Mobs in Gujarat in 2002 ‘raped, murdered, maimed, burned, and looted in broad daylight’, just as they had in 1984, during the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi, and in Colombo where Tamil neighbourhoods burned. As Chatterjee points out, ‘there was no violence to “expose”… the pogrom was on the surface of things.’

This is an exceptionally succinct framing of the problem, especially in light of the fact that political violence and polarisation are much more mainstream and recurrent than they were in 2002. Even then, there was ‘no shame, no guilt’. Not only was the violence visible, but it was also repeated, circulated and celebrated. Two decades later, mob violence is explicit to the point that it is documented by the perpetrators themselves. Evidence of antiminority violence, instead of building empathy with the victims, seems to generate support for the perpetrators. Through his experience with activism, meeting advocates who sought justice through legal processes and interviews with survivors, Chatterjee reveals the limits of the politics of exposure for it is based on an assumption that, if violence is unveiled, it will lead to positive outcomes such as justice, or empathy. 

People convicted for rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case of the 2002 Gujarat riots, being welcomed as they come out of the Godhra sub-jail after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy, in Godhra, August 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

There are three distinct aspects of such limitation. The first is immediate and continuous enactment of violence against minority groups. The people who plan and participate in such violence are already aware of their role and the damage they will inflict, so there is nothing to expose there. The second is the silence of those who ‘know’ or witness such violence but refuse to bear witness in law courts, either because they are afraid or because they side with the perpetrators. Those who do attempt to document and give testimony are not believed as legal witnesses. The third aspect is the legal process, which is supposed to expose facts and punish the guilty. But if the police do not build their case, punishment is impossible and here too, exposure has no consequences. If everyone knows and nobody is punished, then what is the point of such processes?  

Are communal and political violence different?

Chatterjee proposes a ‘side-stepping’ – to ‘avoid, exceed, and work beside exposure’. He argues that violence against minorities is not an exceptional event in the Global South, that it is essentially political violence – garbed as religious or ethnic violence – used to construct more or less permanent majorities and minorities. While this book focuses on India, it reminds us that modern Western states like the US and Canada were built on ‘the expulsion and subjugation of Indigenous and Black people’ and that contemporary violence against such racial minorities is ‘not a deviation from modernity but an integral aspect of the making of the modern nation-state itself.’ There is something foundational about antiminority violence and as postcolonial countries have developed into modern democracies, their respective pogroms and ethnic ‘conflicts’ have served to establish dominant racial or religious majorities as stable political majorities. 

Posing the question – ‘What can India tell us about the power of public violence against minorities to act as a catalyst for the creation of a permanent majority?’ – the author attempts to answer it through this book. His title – composing violence – is an attempt to understand ‘how violence persists, motivates, and animates social and political life beyond the scene of horror,’ and to move away from the idea that violence is ‘a breakdown, interruption, and exception,’ to instead describe it as ‘a constitutive force.’ This transformational quality of violence serves as a catalyst for turning Muslims in India into permanent minorities and ‘outsiders’. 

Moyukh Chatterjee
Composing Violence: The Limits of Exposure and the Making of Minorities
Duke University Press (February 2023)

Contrary to popular belief, the author argues, liberal democracies do not always fear riots; in fact, they covet riots and pogroms. The state periodically concedes ‘the power of life and death to racial, religious and ethnic supremacist groups.’ It does not suffer a crisis of legitimacy as long as the violence serves ‘a national fantasy’ which, in India’s case, is the ‘Hindu nation’. Drawing parallels with the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Jews in Europe, he points towards two contradictory concepts of belonging – the cultural or popular (the nation) and the constitutional or legal (the state) – in a state of irresolvable tension. If the nation is created by majorities (the popular vote), it is bound to clash against a constitution that protects minority lives, cultures, and points of view. The ‘difference’ of the minority is then suppressed or resolved through riots, lynchings, displacements, and even through gas chambers and concentration camps. The ‘minor’ is suppressed because it can ‘unravel the fantasies of the majoritarian machine.’ Minorities are considered an impediment to the nation’s attempt to ‘unify and homogenize a territory under one flag, one religion, and one culture’ and the people who comprise a minority are ‘available for violence in the name of nationalism and the will of the majority.’

The role of democratic institutions in ‘minoritisation’

All parts of a functional democracy strengthen the infrastructure of minoritisation. This includes media reports that frame all conflict in terms of religious differences. Chatterjee refers to a 2011 ‘riot’ in Gujarat wherein a ‘minor’ reading of the event reveals that it was actually instigated by Dinesh alias ‘Dhoni’, a local hoodlum who refused to pay for some CDs he took from a Muslim vendor, and to whom Muslim shop-owners were refusing to give protection money. This tale, which includes ‘extortion, political and police patronage of criminal activity, caste politics, and the political economy of illegal liquor,’ was reported by both the press and the police as a religious conflict. But the minor reading, with its nuance and detail about local power, never finds a major audience. Gujarati newspapers described such violence as dhamaal (chaos) and toofaan (storm) to suggest spontaneity and universal impact. The police report was also sketchy to the point that it was ‘more fable, less description,’ painting a picture of a ‘symmetrical war’ between mobs identified only by religion. This ‘legal-media writing machine’ is described as a form of world-making, a continual production of a public sphere where Hindus and Muslims are at war with each other.

Procedure – the process of filing police reports, going to court, waiting and witnessing trials – also plays an active part in the infrastructure of minoritisation. The ‘legal composition of minority subjects’ implies that minorities may not be legally stripped of all rights but they are ‘continually dismissed in courtrooms.’ One such example offered is that of Gafar, a survivor of the 2002 violence. Chatterjee notes, ‘the fact that he survived was used against him’ in the trial. In another case, a judge uses the category of ‘mob’ to justify the presence of the accused at the crime scene. The author writes that ‘such Kafkaesque reversals are key achievements of the trial: the survivor becomes the accused and the accused becomes the witness.’ Through precluding witness testimony, through delay and deferral, the law serves to absorb, repackage and reframe political violence.

Similarly, in cases of sexual assault, judges dismiss the survivor’s testimony as being unreliable or inconsistent. And yet, sexual violence does not begin or end with the penetration of women’s bodies. It begins with the mob coming to the door, or even earlier, with the possibility of the mob always lurking at the edge of your consciousness. Such violence also endures long after the central event. It recurs in the shape of words written on the walls of homes, threats and attacks on witnesses, men exposing themselves to women survivors when they go out to use public toilets. The process of minoritisation thus continues in the aftermath of a pogrom.

In a moving reminder of the continuity of such violence, Chatterjee writes that many of the Muslim survivors of 2002 had also survived 1969, 1985 and 1992. In meetings with the author, they “excavate yellowing legal papers wrapped in plastic bags… to show me that they have proof. Proof of what? Proof that the law was not blind, incapable, or speechless. Proof that they had in the past too gone to the police station to file complaints about their shops burned, their missing and dead relatives, and their houses looted. Proof that they lived in a world divided into killable minorities and triumphant majorities.”

Delhi riots

Security personnel walk past the Bhagirathi Vihar area of the riot-affected northeast Delhi, February 26, 2020. Photo: PTI

Is majoritarian violence a feature of democracy?

Do modern democracies inevitably succumb to majoritarian violence? This book seems to argue that it is not a bug and may well be a feature. Efforts to seek judicial redress have largely failed in India and it is true that exposure of the groups and individuals involved in one pogrom does nothing to prevent another. It is worth considering that although states and borders have historically come to being through violence in the shape of territorial conquest, these wars did not necessarily target racial or religious minorities. This is a problem peculiar to electoral democracy, which makes it even more alarming. Should we assume that justice is impossible for minorities in constitutional democracies like ours? Is peace impossible?

Chatterjee does not make that argument. He encourages us to instead track the ‘tentacles of violent events within everyday social life.’ And yet, given the limitations of the exposure model of seeking justice, how far would we get through such tracking? Is there a point to the exercise if impunity is not a breakdown but rather, it is built into the structure of majoritarian democracies (are there any other kinds)?

This is a question that is particularly relevant to journalists, activists and legal advocates, but this book offers no easy or immediate answers. Given what we know about the trajectory of trials so far, and the rewards reaped by those who are in the business of constantly affirming minority status through violence, one may be tempted to throw up one’s hands and give up.

However, there is something else to consider in the context of exposure. It may not serve justice in the specific instance but there is a reason why ideological battles are fought on the terrain of truth, history and fact-finding. There must be a reason why people try to wrest control of television channels and news media. The truth has power. Memory has power. However fragile its hold, the act of witnessing and retelling demands a moral response, and even a book exposing the limitations of the politics of exposure ultimately must use the same tools to build its argument – memory, narrative, a quest for something like justice. In this alone, we place our hopes, for what else is there to do?