‘The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society’ review: An ideology of hatred

A political scientist tries to understand why violence and democracy continue to co-exist in India despite the fact that the two are antithetical to each other

November 06, 2021 04:28 pm | Updated 04:28 pm IST

The history of violence is as old as civilisation. Settled, as opposed to nomadic, societies were mostly hierarchical, and no one got to be at the top — or wield power as a king — without violence being involved. Not surprisingly, history-writing for a long time was synonymous with the biographies of kings and chronicles of war. Liberal democracy, with its promise of equality, was supposed to resolve the problem of violence. While this promise has somewhat held in the mature democracies of the West, it hasn’t in the post-colonial world where India belongs.

Violence has dogged Indian democracy right from its birth. How do we explain the continued co-existence of violence and democracy despite the fact that the two are antithetical to each other? Neera Chandhoke, a political science scholar, attempts to answer this question in The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping The Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society .

The catalyst

Chandhoke’s thesis is that human beings may entertain violent thoughts, but they do not descend to violent acts without an external catalyst — which could be an ideology, a political entrepreneur gifted in stoking hatred, or the momentary transformation that happens when an individual becomes part of a mob. These catalysts work on pre-existing fault lines until tectonic passions are inflamed, causing deadly explosions of violence. She identifies six such fault lines in India, devoting a chapter to each: India’s Partition, caste-based violence, communal conflict, Kashmir insurgencies, the unrest in the North-East, and Maoist violence. In each case, she details the historical background and political context, making the violence intelligible.

Agent of violence

The six chapters are preceded by an Introduction, where Chandhoke delves into the conceptual underpinnings of what constitutes violence, and a Conclusion, where she compares Frantz Fanon’s theory of revolutionary violence with the efficacy of Gandhian non-violence.

An act of violence, for Chandhoke, comprises three elements: use of force, intention to harm, and actual harm being done. Of the three, the defining one is intentionality. This framework works well when the agent of violence is an individual or even a collective, such as a mob. But its limitations emerge when Chandhoke deploys it to critique the idea of ‘structural violence’, where harm originates in an institution — an entity that offers little scope to pinpoint intention.

For Chandhoke, ‘structural violence’ is nothing but a misguided attempt to expand the concept of violence to include what is essentially ‘injustice’. She writes, “When millions of Scheduled Castes (SCs)... continue to be subjected to rank indignities... their situation is best conceptualised as social injustice.” But when security forces shoot them dead, that would be violence. “Violence infringes our right to bodily and mental integrity; injustice denies people a fair share in the benefits and burdens of their society.” This is a neat distinction. But it ignores a critical layer of meaning embedded in the term ‘structural violence’ — a costly miss that often leads to the absence of violence getting equated with non-violence.

To return to the example of casteist indignities, why would, say, an SC boy ‘voluntarily’ carry his footwear on his head while crossing a caste Hindu area? In this instance, there is no force involved, no agent intending this indignity (there may be no one present in the vicinity). Yet harm has definitely been accomplished, with a human being humiliated for no reason. In Chandhoke’s schema, this would be injustice, not violence. But such an interpretation obscures a significant mode of violence without which an unjust society cannot reproduce itself: the memory of violence past.

Ritual humiliation

In a slave society, the master isn’t required to unleash violence every single day. Just because the slave seems happy to serve his master doesn’t make the latter non-violent. The structural violence of slavery or untouchability doesn’t need intentionality precisely because the intent is encoded in the collective memory of the tremendous violence that, in the distant past, accomplished the subjugation of a community. It is this memory, passed on through generations, that enforces a violent act of ritual humiliation so very ‘non-violently’.

A contradiction

Also, in privileging an individualistic approach to violence, centred on the bodies of the victim and perpetrator, Chandhoke’s framework is in danger of confounding the mover and the moved. For instance, some of the most vicious ideologues of violence are men who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Should we consider them ‘non-violent’ because they personally never hurt anyone?

Chandhoke comes close to articulating this contradiction when she writes about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and how his “cult of violence” inspires a young Indian student, Madan Lal Dhingra, to murder a British official. Was the “purposeful agent” of this murder Savarkar, or was it Dhingra who, in Savarkar’s words, “converted to our revolutionary views through my principles and guidance”?

Today, as Savarkar is vigorously rehabilitated, and his views achieve respectability, thousands of such “conversions” happen daily over WhatsApp.

The distinction Chandhoke makes between ‘religion as faith’ and ‘religion as politics’ is vanishing. Her spirited invocation of Gandhian non-violence as some sort of a panacea carries more desperation than conviction. But then, these are desperate times, and this book is a valuable intervention that should interest anyone concerned by the increasing normalisation of violence as a form of politics.

The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society ; Neera Chandhoke, Aleph, ₹699.


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