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Updated: March 22, 2014 17:35 IST

The banality of evil

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Illustration: Deepak Harichandan
The Hindu
Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

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:

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My humble request to author is that what option do the nation have.? Vote to a party which is having a reputation of doing the same banal thing for 60 odd years, or to a new party, on contrary to their claims, they seems to be on the same line of the other two party or to a party instead delving too much into past, showing some silver lining for the nation's future.?

from:  Sam
Posted on: Mar 25, 2014 at 18:21 IST

The country is in a path of moral degradation. Modi, gangrape, terrorism, killings by khap,
cruelty against women......somehow all this seems so connected.

from:  pallab
Posted on: Mar 25, 2014 at 15:19 IST

This is one of the best articles that I have read in recent times. Well thought out article to reflect upon! Congrats to the author for bringing out this very important perspective to the young nation which seems to be losing its moral credibility under the chorus of so called "economic growth." I think, banality of evil is a dangerous sign for any civilised society which the author rightly calls it as "Fascism" in making.

from:  martin santha kumar
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 14:46 IST

"The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do

from:  mahesh menon
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 14:30 IST

Thanks for publishing this excellent article. And from the comments below, I'm very happy to see there are others who share my concerns for our country.

from:  Jude
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 13:56 IST

A line from this article "If there was some moral indignation and horror
at the thought of Narendra Modi becoming prime minister until recently
...... ". This is amezing to see how the author uses words like 'moral
indignation' to justify the prejudice e.g., 'horror at the thought',
about a person.
Killing is not justifiable, can never be. However, having a prejudice in
the name of Morality about a specific person cannot be justified either.

from:  Amit
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 13:54 IST

Evil when countenanced by the society becomes a banality. Far sighted people should also be capable of creating public awareness in a wise and positive manner. Only vigilance could counter the banality of evil.

from:  G.Rajaram.
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 12:33 IST

Thank god the author doesnt live in India! Going by what is going to happen in a few months, we all should be scared...very scared...we are already seeing a sudden fullstop on every opposition and shreiks of false glory.... Worst days ahead particularly for women.

from:  chait
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 11:44 IST

One of the best articles in recent times, when everyone is lost in number games.

Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 11:42 IST

Yes Fascism is in the making. Or more correctly in the words of
Arundhati Roy, the tragedy has happened already?

from:  Vinod Sidharth
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 09:06 IST

One of the best article i am reading in recent times. Iam afraid the
atmosphere is so emotional that one cannot even discuss this in
It is dangerous trend as many scholars and intellectuals are falling
in line. Being so what can we expect from ordinary people? A Kannada
poet put it in a beautiful song ' Sheep Sir. Sheeep'.
It is more relevent, timely. uttterly human and truly religious.
I wish this need to be widely circulated, publisized during election
time as of now. Will some one come forward and help me.
J.Krishnamurti the profoung thinker of our times calld mans politics
as refined gangsterism. Who said literature is verbal sedative and so
is politics and organised religion Do you know two Bharat Ratna
awardess visiting a politicians home, who hated north Indians.
Respectability corrupts teh soul. That is India and of course the
world we are in.

from:  s.dinni
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 07:22 IST

A remarkable article that discusses the choices we face by not being
superficial, but by looking deeper. The media can talk about events
or project outcomes, but only the election results will confirm the
question that is raising in people's mind - has the quasi-fascist
ideology taken over? Is there really a Modi wave? More specifically,
is there really a saffron wave?
If it is, it will be similar to a virus that runs its course before
the system will be free from it. The fear is, how long will it take
and how many innocent lives will be lost during the time?
As citizens of the country, irrespective of our religious beliefs,
each one of us is directly responsible for the outcome, since it is
due to our choices at the poll.

from:  Sunil
Posted on: Mar 24, 2014 at 00:10 IST

Excellent. No better word to describe a truly thought provoking and moral compass rattling essay.
We need many more such essays to wake up from a moral slumber.

from:  prakash Desai
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 23:41 IST

Well written. But am not pessimistic. Small groups of people are trying to raise issues and the voters are fortunately not just those sitting in drawing rooms hooked to the latest Breaking News and Twitter.

from:  Ann Ninan
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 23:16 IST

Well written article.

from:  A Tikku
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 22:58 IST

Crime is always crime, it has been happened due to revenge, how you can judge that modi is the sole responsible , even though he expressed regret about that violence which was done by normal people. he made all people of Gujarat to be proud on their development and upliftment without any decrimination by his government..

from:  manjunath tangadgi
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 22:03 IST

This is a superb article and a fact of politics in India that is practiced by Modi bandwagon.Modi realized the majority will never care about the killings and discrimination of Muslims as long as the image of development is projected.The majority will put all the blame on Muslims and even their lack of education and economic development and made to look as a burden.Hitler developed Germany but butchered Jews but people never had sympathy till he invaded other nations.Modi and RSS can continue to kill Muslims and win elections as long as their canards against Muslims are justified in the media and the attention is riveted towards the economic issues.

from:  Nasar
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 18:33 IST

Excellent article to help pull the election discourse back to crux of PM aspirant's credentials.
Off late I have been wondering what is it that Modi will bring to the table: his tolerance of
corrupt people and sidelining of honest folks like Jaswant Singh begs a question on whether
he will be another Manmohan Singh tolerating corruption to gain and stay in power. If that's
the case the whole argument on regime change becomes questionable.

from:  Premium air
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 13:43 IST

And throughout the esteemed author has made an assumption that "HE" is
the one responsible for the riots. That assumption talks about the
author's cognition. I wonder if even 10% of Muzaffarnagar,Assam,Bihar
riots were even talked upon. But disappointingly,I wont see them.
Coming to the facts of HDI etc. the author would never relate facts as
how much Gujarat has and what it has done from the present resources.
Half of the Guj is a desert and still contributing as top 5 states to
the GDP of India , I wont go much deep with those facts.
He talks upon that how Guj has not made huge scene in HDI but he wont
talk which other states have done great and which havent.I'll tell you
-Bihar,Jharkhand,C'garh,MP,UP,U'khand,Assam have done better.These are
states which are bound to grow.They cant deteriorate any further.Also
which states haven't fared well - TN,WB,MH,Delhi,Punjab,Kerala..So
whats the conclusion ?
Just showing half facts regarding a state wont tell the whole story.

from:  Manu Vatayan
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 11:14 IST

A great and insightful article. Many Indians are blinded by the term
'development'. In the run up to the numbers on GDP, good roads and
clashing rhetoric, they forget that development of the human mind is the
most formidable of all; without that, all other progress is just

from:  Akhila Madhu
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 10:43 IST

Roughly 1.5M (1,500,000 for emphasis) extra Indians die every year -
than if we had same average lifespan as South Korea. The graph of
average national income - observed over scores of countries - and
average lifespan is nearly linear.

So while the author talks about the banality of development - he has
forgotten about the banality of killing people - several orders of
magnitude times more - by keeping them poor. He cites the hopelessness
of industrialization - but poses no alternative to a future with higher

Once upon a time - the time of 80s and before - such opinions were banal
in India. When deprivation and scarcity were even more common. I am glad
to be part of a generation of Indians who have been freed from the
clutches of *that* banality.

from:  Joydeep Sen Sarma
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 07:49 IST

This is an insightful article, well thought out, and striking at the
root questions,ignored by all. But unfortunately, people have sense only
in the guts, not in their brain. So this election is the high road to
fascism. All those who hail evil, unwittingly partake in the evil. Only
those chant for fascism shall have voice, all other voices, especially,
the sane voices, will be suppressed. India lacks leaders now, so the
vacuum will be filled in by evil leaders. Where there is no light,
darkness naturally prevails.

from:  Jose
Posted on: Mar 23, 2014 at 05:55 IST

But, in this election, there is no party (infact no party ever in
history of elections) which is concerned (or atleast portray itself to
be) about environment or human development. And if one goes for NOTA,
that doesn't seem to be viable because,let say, if everybody goes for
NOTA (which is impossible), we will again have the same faces to vote

from:  Atticus
Posted on: Mar 22, 2014 at 22:37 IST

Have to thank The Hindu for this timely article, and more so the author. Hope every
citizen could read it, feel what the author feels. The great Tamil poet Bharathi asked
"When will the shackles on our hands go away? When will our sufferrings would get
exhausted?". The very people who should be answering these questions do not know if
these questions exist. The ordinary citizen is left with choices like this or that. All
possible choices apparently fail to bring any hope for development in its real sense.
Whom should we blame for this condition? If we were smaller countries united by
only culture like the present day Europe, may be individual states might have fared as
good as or better than Sri Lanka or Nepal. I think there isn't much hope that things
might change for the better for a long time from now.

from:  R. Anand
Posted on: Mar 22, 2014 at 20:39 IST

There have been periodic riots in India, since its independence. Has anyone published a study of how they were handled by the respective political leaders, in-charge at the time? Would it not be fair to make a comparative evaluation of Modi's handling of Gujarat riots to their performance?

from:  gorli harish
Posted on: Mar 22, 2014 at 20:15 IST

The article has given sociological and philosophical connotations of
economic growth in an excellent manner.

from:  S.Ramakrishnasayee
Posted on: Mar 22, 2014 at 17:56 IST
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