The Trail of Violence in India

Violence is not the root problem, it is a symbol of a democratic deficit, of unrepresentative and unresponsive democracies, of injustice, of the failure of the state to control dominant groups, and of the readiness of the state to use violence against its own people.

The Hindi poet Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’ was witness to the insane bloodletting in Punjab during Partition. Overcome by regret and disbelief, he wrote a series of anguished poems titled Sharanarthi between October 12, 1947 and November 12 of the same year. Sitting in waiting rooms, or on the benches and piles of luggage on platforms of railway stations, he scripted a testimony of large scale and mind-numbing violence unleashed in Punjab. He concluded that the region was caught up in an epileptic fit. There was no other explanation for the madness that overcame it. On October 24, 1947, he wrote:

आज जाने किस हिंस्र डर ने
देश को बेख़बरी में डँस लिया!
संस्कृति की चेतना मुरझा गयी!
मिरगी का दौरा पड़ा, इच्छाशक्ति बुझ गयी!

(Aaj jaane kis hinshr dar ne/ desh ko bekhabri mein das liya/ sanskriti ki chetna murjha gayi/ mrigi ka daura pada/ichashakti bujh gayi.

Translation: Who knows what violent dread has stunned the country. Awareness of our common culture and of our great civilisation has withered. An epileptic fit has extinguished autonomy of the will.)

In the last few days, we saw a disgusting spectacle beamed on our television screens of mobs baying for the blood of Rhea Chakraborty, of media anchors shrilly demanding her head, of journalists crowding a young woman who has been pronounced guilty even before the case has been tried in the court. The terrible display of bloodlust reminds us of Agyeya’s words: our society has been swept by an epileptic fit.

On second thoughts, the photograph of a bloodthirsty mob chasing a helpless victim is not an isolated instance, it is but a symptom of a general malaise that has overrun the country, of vigilantism.

Collective life in India has been marked by the rise of vigilantes who maim, murder and wound on the slightest pretext. On June 18, 2019, in Jharkhand a mob assaulted Tabrez Ansari, on suspicion of theft. He was tied to a pole and lynched while the crowd surrounding him demanded that he repeat the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’. He did so but the beatings did not stop. The police rescued his wounded and bruised body, but took him to the police station instead of the hospital. He was admitted in a hospital four days later. He was in pain and he succumbed to his injuries. Ansari was 27 seven years old. A life ended before it had even begun for the young man.

In the rest of India, we watched the appalling theatre of violence unbelievingly but mutely. We should make no mistake: silence is acquiescence.

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Indians, perhaps, have become used to performative acts of violence staged in public spaces for sometimes ridiculous reasons. Lynching of vulnerable people has become a part of everyday life. People have been lynched because they transport cows, because WhatsApp messages spread rumours that chid-lifters are around, because people appear suspicious, and simply because they are different: a mentally challenged person here, a disoriented woman there. Between May 10, 2018 and July 2 of the same year, frenzied mobs killed people in 16 different incidents because unsubstantiated WhatsApp posts warned that they might be child-lifters.

The biography of our nation is scarred by indescribable acts of individual and collective violence. Headlines of morning newspapers regularly disburse news about the latest incident of, often, incredible brutality etched onto the bodies of women, of children, of the so-called lower castes, of minority groups, and of vulnerable others. Violence is executed with deadly precision.

At any given day and time, everyday violence ranges from road rage, to major destruction that follows brutal and completely amoral terror attacks, to crowds that run amuck setting fire to public property, to demonstrations that go painfully wrong and lead to death. Some forms of violence are extraordinarily collective – such as communal or caste riots, or civil wars resulting in thousands of deaths. Some penetrate deep into the body politic and appear as the ordinariness of everyday life, such as violence against women.

Sadly institutions, procedures and agents which are supposed to protect citizens, such as tribunals, committees and courts, are compromised. All governments are arbitrary and heedless of the interest of their citizens, particularly the most vulnerable sections of society. Such arbitrary exercise of power has to be kept in check in a democracy by institutions, laws, processes, and civil society organisations. When the capacity of civil society organisations to mount protest against violence is neutralised by state power, and when institutions and laws that possess the capacity to protect citizens are subordinated to problematic ideologies, the rights of citizens are violated with a degree of impunity, often by the police, often by mobs dispensing vigilante justice. But the state is silent.

Let us not mistake the matter. The state is responsible for the security of its citizens. The state as the condensate of power sets the framework for all sorts of transactions in the household, in society, in religious groupings, in educational institutions, in the work place and even in sites of recreation.  If the state is silent when fellow citizens brutalise women, minorities and the so-called lower castes, if it does not attempt to protect the lives of the vulnerable sections of society, or when the holders of state power barely blink an eye when terrible things are done to people who are defenceless, they are guilty of complicity in violent acts. This has some serious consequences for democracy.

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Our country’s record in maintaining electoral democracy is undeniably impressive. But we also cannot deny that the face of Indian democracy has been deeply scarred by violence. We have on our collective conscience memories and forecasts of ugly violence in society: caste violence, communal riots, ethnic strife, and terrible viciousness against women and children, against the trans-gender community, and increasingly against the minorities.

Notably, violence does not hurt the powerful who barricade themselves against fellow citizens by barbed iron fences and security guards. It does not harm politicians who use security forces to protect themselves against the very citizens who have elected them into power. Violence harms ordinary people.

People die in bomb blasts in buses and trains, they die because of lynching, they perish in communal and caste riots, they die of hunger, they die when floods come roaring in and sweep away their livelihoods because of environmental devastation, they die when earthquakes ravage their homes and workplaces, and they die begging on the streets of the metropolis, often in front of showy malls whose shops offer glittering goods for consumption. Above all the they die because violence has become the accepted way of doing politics, both for the government and for some groups of citizens.

At first sight violence appears to be an anomaly in a democracy. Why should groups pick up weapons, or support those who do so, when they have the democratic right to question injustice and renegotiate justice, in and through campaigns in civil society and through their representatives in Parliament. Civil society in India is messy and chaotic, but it has on occasions proved creative. The draconian law passed by the BJP in its second term that was initiated by the May 2019 elections, has after all been challenged by citizens and by young people in innovative, peaceful and constitutional ways since 15 December 2019 till the time the pandemic struck in March 2020.

By contrast the route that violence takes is unpredictable and dangerous. It leads to harm, bears consequences that may well be unintended, such as deaths of innocent bystanders. It generates fear and resentment, loses out on the sympathy quotient, invites retaliation, and sweeps up the perpetrator, the victim, and innocent bystanders in a vicious spiral of merciless destruction and impairment. “Each new morn” says Macduff of war in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven in the face, that it resounds.” And yet in our democracy, the government, powerful groups, or even the victims of injustice and resentment, opt for ‘new sorrows’ that strike heaven in the face.

This is the plain and unvarnished truth. Can we overlook the fact that violence has become a routine way of doing politics in India? But that violence has become a routine way of doing politics in India is not the subject of great speculation. There is a large body of literature on the successes of Indian democracy, and an equally large one on violence, whether spontaneous, episodic or organised.

Yet studies, analysis, acclamation, condemnation, and critical engagement with both concepts, tend to wend their own literary, polemical, analytical, and descriptive way with little prospect of intersection. Indian democracy forms a sub-set of understandings of democracy, and studies of violence fall within the scholarly field of insurgencies, security, conflict studies, conflict resolution, strategic studies, terrorism, and in the case of Kashmir, India-Pakistan relations. It is almost as if it has been ordained that democracy and violence shall not meet.

What is clear is that violence is found at every site of social and political interaction, from the violence of everyday life, to political violence that is deployed to make claims upon the state or resist injustice.

We just have to dwell on the diverse and intricate ways in which violence is produced and reproduced in our body politic, to realise that violence, as a specific form of politics, is neither an aberration, nor outside the provenance of democracy. We also recognise with distress that violence is not an unwelcome visitor, or an uninvited stranger who has strayed into our, otherwise, harmonious world, but whose prolonged stay can be brought to end only if we, in a determined fashion, refuse to extend hospitality. We can no longer say that a democratic social order has no place for violence.

History tells us that the beast of violence lurks on the boundaries, and in the crevices of any society. It can enter the centre-stage at the proverbial drop of a hat. No matter how democratic a society may be, violence lurks on the sidelines; waiting for a cue to enter and wreck a carefully and painfully constructed democratic world where people see themselves as equal members of a political community. Intelligent societies led by statesmen keep the beast of violence at bay, short-visioned leaders who subscribe to populism invite violence into the public forum.

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Violence is not the root problem, it is a symbol of a democratic deficit, of unrepresentative and unresponsive democracies, of injustice, of the failure of the state to control dominant groups, and of the readiness of the state to use violence against its own people. The unhappy coexistence of democracy and violence cannot be wished away by neglecting either the context of violence that is democracy, or ignoring the pervasiveness of violence in Indian democracy.

Whatever be the trigger, we can no longer see violence as an aberration, or see democracy only as a gigantic fraud that is perpetuated upon political innocents. Our democracy is deeply flawed, even though we have several achievements to our credit. Unless we wish to engage in the time consuming and ultimately thankless task of constructing binary opposites: violent democracy versus democracy where violence is, but, an aberration, we have to accept it as part of bad politics. Today violence has crept out from the borders of our society, we see with fear and dread an ugly beast with a cavernous mouth, ready to consume our own people.

The prevalence of violence in democratic politics might well compel us acknowledge that democracy and violence inhabit the same political space. The argument is not that democracy is embedded in violence. But it is not too distant from violence either. The relationship is not external, the links that bind democracy and violence have to do with the exercise of power and the will to inordinate power both by the state and by groups in society. If democracy cannot limit assertions of power, control groups that use violence to dominate and suppress, mitigate discrimination, remedy broken promises and deliver justice, it cannot neutralise violence. And we will continue to witness sickening scenes of vigilante violence.

Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University.