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The banality of evil

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

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When carnage is reduced to numbers and development to just economic growth, real human beings and their tragedies remain forgotten.

Empires collapse. Gang leaders/Are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples/Can no longer be seen under all those armaments — Bertolt Brecht

German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt gave the world the phrase, “the banality of evil”. In 1963, she published the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi military officer and one of the key figures of the Holocaust. Eichmann was hanged to death for war crimes. Arendt’s fundamental thesis is that ghastly crimes like the Holocaust are not necessarily committed by psychopaths and sadists, but, often, by normal, sane and ordinary human beings who perform their tasks with a bureaucratic diligence.

Maya Kodnani, MLA from Naroda, handed out swords to the mobs that massacred 95 people in the Gujarat riots of 2002. She was sentenced to 28 years in prison. She is a gynecologist who ran a clinic, and was later appointed as Minister for Women and Child Development under Narendra Modi.

Jagdish Tytler was, allegedly, one of the key individuals in the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs. He was born to a Sikh mother and was brought up by a Christian, a prominent educationist who established institutions like the Delhi Public School. A Congress Party leader, he has been a minister in the Union government. The supposedly long arm of law has still not reached him. Guess they never will, considering that the conviction rate in the cases for butchering nearly 8000 Sikhs is only around one per cent.

For every “monstrous” Babu Bajrangi and Dara Singh, there are the Kodnanis and Tytlers. Evil, according to Arendt, becomes banal when it acquires an unthinking and systematic character. Evil becomes banal when ordinary people participate in it, build distance from it and justify it, in countless ways. There are no moral conundrums or revulsions. Evil does not even look like evil, it becomes faceless.

Thus, a terrifyingly fascinating exercise that is right now underway in the election campaign is the trivialisation and normalisation of the Gujarat pogrom, to pave the way for the crowning of the emperor, the Vikas Purush. If there was some moral indignation and horror at the thought of Narendra Modi becoming prime minister until recently, they have been washed away in the tidal wave of poll surveys, media commentaries, intellectual opinion, political bed-hopping, and of course, what the Americans think, all of which reinforce each other in their collective will to see Modi ascend to power.

Banalisation of evil happens when great human crimes are reduced to numbers. Thus, for example, scholars Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya write a letter to The Economist on the latter’s article on Modi: “You said that Mr. Modi refuses to atone for a ‘pogrom’ against Muslims in Gujarat, where he is chief minister. But what you call a pogrom was in fact a ‘communal riot’ in 2002 in which a quarter of the people killed were Hindus”. So, apparently, if we change the terminology, the gravity of the crime and the scale of the human tragedy would be drastically less!

This intellectual discourse is mirrored in ordinary people who adduce long-winded explanations for how moral responsibility for events like the Gujarat pogrom cannot really be attributed to anybody, especially the chief minister, who is distant from the crime scene. No moral universe exists beyond the one of “legally admissible evidence”. To be innocent means only to be innocent in the eyes of law. But what does evidence mean when the most powerful political, bureaucratic, and legal machineries are deployed to manipulate, manufacture and kill evidence as seen in both the 2002 and 1984 cases?

Another strategy of banalisation is to pit the number of dead in 2002 with that of 1984 (Bhagwati and Panagariya go onto assert that 1984 “was indeed a pogrom”). Modi’s infamous response to post-Godhra violence is countered with Rajiv Gandhi’s equally notorious comment after his mother’s assassination. In this game of mathematical equivalence, what actually slip through are real human beings and their tragedies.

Banalisation of evil happens when the process of atonement is reduced to a superficial seeking of apology. Even when that meaningless apology is not tendered, we can wonder to what extent reconciliation is possible.

The biggest tool in this banalisation is development. Everyday, you see perfectly decent, educated, and otherwise civil people normalise the Gujarat riots and Modi, because he is, after all, the “Man of Development”. “Yes, it might be that he is ultimately responsible for the riots, but look at the roads in Gujarat!” It is a strange moral world in which roads have moral equivalence to the pain of Zakia Jaffrey and other victims.

Ironically, along with evil, development itself becomes banal. Development becomes hollowed and is reduced to merely economic growth. E.F. Schumacher’s famous book Small is Beautiful has a less famous subtitle, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. But when development is banal, people do not matter. Nor does the ecosystem. There are no inviolable ethical principles in pursuit of development. If Atal Behari Vajpayee was the mask of the BJP’s first foray into national governance, development becomes the mask of the Modi-led BJP’s present attempt, and a façade for the pogrom.

But what is fascinating is how such a banal understanding of development has captured public imagination. The most striking aspect of the Gujarat model is the divergence between its growing economy and its declining rank on the Human Development Index (HDI). For instance, in the UNDP's inequality-adjusted HDI (2011) Gujarat ranks ninth in education and 10th in health (among 19 major states). On gains in the HDI (1999-2008), Gujarat is 18th among 23 states. In the first India State Hunger Index (2009), Gujarat is 13th out of 17 states (beating only Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh).

Yet, shockingly, prominent economists like Bhagwati participate in this banalisation by glorifying the Gujarat model. His response to the poor record of Gujarat is that it “inherited low levels of social indicators” and thus we should focus on “the change in these indicators” where he finds “impressive progress”. If so, how is it that many other states starting off at the same low levels have made much better gains than Gujarat without similar economic growth?

These figures and others about a whole range of human deprivation are in the public domain for some time, but, astonishingly, are not a matter of debate in the elections. Even if they were, they would not apparently dent the myth of the “Man of Development”. Such is the power of banalisation that it has no correlation with facts.

Even as the developed countries are realising the catastrophic human and environmental costs of the urban, industrial-based models of boundless economic growth (in America, the number of new cancer cases is going to rise by 45 per cent in just 15 years), we are, ironically, hurtling down the same abyss to a known hell — India fell 32 ranks in the global Environmental Performance Index to 155 and Delhi has become the most polluted city in the world this year! The corporate-led Gujarat model is an even grander industrial utopia based on the wanton devastation of mangroves and grazing lands.

In a recent election opinion poll, the three most important problems identified by the voters in Punjab were drug addiction (70 per cent), cancer caused by pesticides (17 per cent) and alcoholism (nine per cent)! This is shocking and unprecedented, and it stems from the fact than an estimated 67 per cent of rural population in Punjab had at least one drug addict in each household. Nevertheless, the juggernaut of development as economic growth careens on.

Disturbingly, the scope of questioning this banalisation of evil and development diminishes everyday. Many reports emerge about the self-censorship imposed by media institutions already in preparation for the inauguration of a new power dispensation. A book which raises serious questions about the Special Investigation Team’s interrogation of Modi hardly gets any media attention and, instead, is dismissed as propaganda against the BJP. It does not matter that the same journalist subjected the investigation in the anti-Sikh pogrom to similar scrutiny. And the pulping of the book on Hinduism by a publisher portends dangerous tendencies for the freedom of speech and democracy in the country.

The vacuity of the attempts to counter the banalisation of development is evident in the media discourse on elections. Just sample the much-lauded interview conducted by the nation’s conscience keeper with Rahul Gandhi. In a 90-minute conversation, Arnab Goswami could ask only a single question on the economy — on price rise. This is in a nation, which, on some social indicators, is behind neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Elections are not about the substantive issues of human well being, environmental destruction, and ethics, but are reduced to a superficial drama of a clash of personalities.

Fascism is in the making when economics and development are amputated from ethics and an overarching conception of human good, and violence against minorities becomes banal. Moral choices are not always black and white, but they still have to be made. And if India actually believes this election to be a moral dilemma, then the conscience of the land of Buddha and Gandhi is on the verge of imploding.

The author is with Dalhousie University, Canada. E-mail: nmannathukkaren@dal.ca

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2017 3:06:44 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-banality-of-evil/article5818580.ece