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The new face of ideological violence


Squads of hatred and violence are strategically activated to disrupt conversation on issues of common concern

In 1598, a group of Vaishnava clergy sought the King’s permission to install an idol of Vishnu at Chidambaram, the site probably of the most sacred of Shiva temples in the subcontinent. Horrified Shaiva priests responded by a threat to commit mass suicide to protest this. Indeed, twenty of them jumped to their death from the gopuram. This telling detail from a recent book on pluralism by a young American scholar, Elaine Fischer, vividly illustrates the nature of religious violence in early modern India. Worshippers would rather give up their own life than take the life of others with different beliefs and practices. Killing someone from another sect was simply inconceivable!

In the light of this, what is happening today is cataclysmic. India has had many faults but eliminating people for holding different beliefs was certainly not one of them. For more than two millennia, India has had vibrant traditions of atheism and rationalism — the Jains, Buddhists, followers of Mimansa and Samkhya. They were vigorously opposed by worshippers of gods and goddesses and ritualists of all hue, but were never viewed as an existential threat. Claims of superiority were frequently made in public alongside scathing satire, and black humour. There was vitriol too, but physical violence was rare. Ashoka’s inscriptions as early as the 3rd century exhort different religio-philosophical groups to refrain from insulting and humiliating hate speech. Ashoka does not even consider it worth mentioning that people must abjure injuring, leave alone killing each other. He takes it for granted that this does not happen in his kingdom. This is not to say that ancient societies were entirely peaceful. They were rocked by political violence and the everyday violence integral to all hierarchical societies. However, what India did not witness until the advent of colonial modernity is what may be called ideological violence.

Forms of violence

Violence comes in many forms. One kind that springs from greed, anger and fear has been around forever — call this plain violence. Then, of course, there is political violence, i.e. violence to conquer territory, to acquire and maintain state power. Yet another, third form of violence has existed, which might be called ritual violence — in archaic societies, occasionally humans, but far more frequently animals, were slaughtered and sacrificed to procure this-worldly goods as well as to maintain cosmic order. In India, some of this ritual violence also ensued from the distinction between pure and impure, i.e. caste violence.

Ideological violence is different from all these forms of violence — it stems from the dogma that one’s own beliefs and practices are so precious, so unique, that they alone must be publicly visible. Since these are inherently indisputable and have a monopoly over truth, any challenge to them is wasteful or pernicious and therefore must be silenced or erased. It is accompanied by the idea that those with identical beliefs share a special bond of brotherhood which must not be severed by the slightest deviation from within; therefore, internal dissenters must not be tolerated. On the other hand, those who hold different beliefs are outsiders to be fought, expelled, even exterminated.

Ideological violence was once linked to the development of a certain conception of religion, and therefore can also be called religious violence. But in the last two centuries it has permeated a cluster of non-religious ideologies such as Stalinism, Fascism and xenophobic nationalism. Perhaps that is why it is best to call it not religious but ideological violence.

The horrifying spate of murders – Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh – by what appears to be the same kind of killers has shown us a new face of this very ideological violence. To be sure, shades of ideological violence are found in inter-sectarian warfare in West Bengal, and Kerala is currently beset with ideologically motivated inter-group violence, but what is unique about these killings is that violence is directed by assassination squads run by hate groups against hapless individuals merely for holding and expressing their different views in public. This pernicious squad-violence against ordinary middle-class professionals is unique in recent Indian history.

A new fear

One other feature of these serial assassinations is deeply troubling: unless quickly contained, they generate a new kind of fear and a new set of fearful people. It is true, of course, that some or the other group of people have always lived in fear in our society. For instance, Dalits in villages perpetually on the brink of upper-caste violence, women who can never fearlessly venture out at night, journalists in small towns who routinely face the wrath of the powerful, minorities during and in the aftermath of riots, and even middle- and upper-class families who live in gated communities in cities such as Delhi. But what is new and shocking about these recent murders is the attempt to silence assertive, public-spirited, outspoken citizens in metropolitan towns — an effect also sought to be achieved by the legal intimidation of intellectuals and activists.

Are we so uprooted now from our traditions that we can’t bear to see public articulations of alternative view points? Is there is an effort here to have one monolithic ideology in the public domain? Squads of hatred and violence are strategically located and activated to disrupt debate and conversation on issues of common concern and instead foster civic alienation and political fragmentation. If indeed a nation is a people in conversation with each other, then cyberbullying and physical aggression against fellow citizens are conversation-stoppers. An attack on this conversation is an attack on the nation.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 7:27:22 PM |

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