The ‘everydayness’ of our violence

We are a strangely hypocritical society where our scholars and intellectuals talk at length on how the West decimated tribes and native people but refuse to admit how we submit our own people to an equivalent savaging

Updated - May 10, 2016 07:04 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2016 02:10 am IST

India is a country that loves decentralisation and it covers almost every area. I will focus on the subject of tyranny. For example, look at our police stations. We do not need a Hobbesian sovereign ruling over us. In political philosophy, one has what is called the concept of sovereignty which is discussed in Hobbesian terms. Thomas Hobbes’s hypothesis was that the ruler’s sovereignty is contracted to him by the people in return for his maintaining their physical safety. This led him to conclude that if and when the ruler fails, the people recover their ability to protect themselves by forming a new contract. But a policeman in every station is all the tyranny India needs for he or she is the local bully, ruler and judge all rolled into one. The police station is the beginning and end of what constitutes governance in our society. Law is a form of tyranny and has little to do with justice. The point I wish to make is this: why do we need dictatorships in a society when we have tyrannies in every nukkad ? For the middle class in particular, India might be an aspiring democracy where there is a chance for them to make their dreams come true, but for the tribal, the nomad, the Dalit and the average woman, it spells a plurality of dictatorships.

A new level of violence

More than the tyranny they face, whereby the law embraces lawlessness, what is even more frightening for them is the quality of violence and the everydayness of violence. I am not talking about Naxal revolts, communal riots, or caste atrocities which we see and read about as occasional outbursts of collective violence. Instead, I am talking about the “everydayness” of violence, where brutality and torture have become a daily routine and which have reached a new level.

Violence begins almost as an act of classification with the police defining who a citizen is — and as a person with rights — and labelling someone who is not. In this world, tribals and nomads have no place. And this is not a Chhattisgarh, parts of Bihar, or of Kashmir or even Manipur restricted by the burden of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It is only the middle class which can boast of rights, of the power to access green tribunals, the National Human Rights Commission and courts.

There is a deeper fissure here that goes beyond explanations from western theory. To make all this clear, let me cite recent narratives where one can sense why the police station is the functional unit of tyranny.

Savaging our people

This is the story of Kawasi Hidme of Chhattisgarh. In January 2008, a group of tribal women who were eking out a living from a tiny parcel of land, decided to visit a fair. Among them was Kawasi Hidme. She went around to look for a few ribbons and bangles to buy. After walking around a bit, the women searched for a hand pump to quench their thirst. As she reached down to drink water she felt a hand clamp down on her. Spinning around, she found herself staring at a policeman who then dragged her into a police van that was parked outside the fair. With her hands and feet tied, she was thrown on the floor of the vehicle and driven to a police station. She became what was euphemistically called as being “a police consort” — sexually assaulted and transferred from one police station to another. To avoid scandal, as some of the policemen feared she would die, she was arrested and then falsely charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The police accused her of an offence that related to the murder of 23 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and the magistrate remanded her to the Jagdalpur prison. In prison, the horrendous physical and sexual torture she was subjected caused her to have a uterine prolapse. She then asked an inmate for a blade and tried to operate upon herself to end the pain. It resulted in more bleeding and screaming inmates alerted the jailor who then rushed her to a civil hospital for treatment. After surgery she was sent back to jail. Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher, was also in prison during this period, became Ms. Hidme’s saviour. Ms. Sori had also been subject to torture in police custody. After her release, Ms. Sori informed human rights activists about Ms. Hidme’s condition and they in turn were able to get legal aid for her. Finally, in late March 2015, the court ordered her release as none of the charges against her could be proved.

Similar stories have been narrated to the outside world by literary critic Ganesh N. Devy, where, in Gujarat, tribals are easy prey for the police; they are arrested and released on the whims and fancies of the police.

Writer and activist Mahasweta Devi has written about tales of violence in Bihar and West Bengal, most of them involving tribals. We are a strangely hypocritical society where our scholars and intellectuals talk at length on how the West decimated tribes and native people but refuse to admit how we submit our own people to an equivalent savaging. It is a pity that such violence hardly comes within the purview of the law.

Is society normal?

Let me cite another example. Jisha, a Dalit law student was found dead in Perumbavoor, Kerala, on April 28. According to the autopsy, she had been subject to extreme violence and assault. In short, her body had been brutalised. What was even worse was that hers was a classic case of indifference by the police. The horrific case has inevitably drawn comparisons with the brutal gang rape and death of a student in New Delhi in 2012.

One can go on with a series of such anecdotes. At one level, one senses the limits of the law in understanding such cases of violence. Yet, at another, it makes one ask why and what it is that makes society react with such indifference to brutality, dismissing it as an aberration when such instances of violence are becoming all too frequent. If society considers this to be normal or treats it with indifference, one has to wonder if society itself is normal.

This is a question that goes beyond rights and democracy. It plunges deep into the basics of what constitutes that which is social. Is not the primordialism and the banality of violence being used to construct a new kind of social? Are the current strategies of law enough to ponder over and philosophise about such events?

The stomach churns and the mind revolts when the media report such events. Yet, one realises that there is little follow-up. It is almost as if such events pile up on the assembly line of memory as society seems unable to assimilate such events. There is both denial and indifference in the way we consume the event. In a strange way, the production and the consumption of the event become cause for concern. One wonders whether newer forms of “non-caring” or violence are appearing. Somehow, silence, even indifference, quietly suppresses a meditation on such events. As a professor, I can recollect the number of occasions when my students have cried as we discussed such events in class. Yet, society seems so indifferent.

Lessons from the West

I am raising these questions because such events are early warning signs of a deeper crisis. As a nation, India is deeply violent, yet it does not want to analyse such events. Our social scientists have no René Girard (the French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science) or Hannah Arendt (German-born American political theorist and philosopher) or an equivalent of the Frankfurt school (a school of social theory and philosophy) to go into the roots of violence and link it to the everydayness of our lives. Such analyses need courage and conviction to follow evidence and theory to a new sense of evil and even find a language to articulate it. For example, Arendt did so when she talked about the banality of violence; one has to read her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil . Arendt’s subtitle famously introduced the phrase “the banality of evil”, which also serves as the final words of the book. The ordinary Jew revolted when Arendt explained that Otto Adolf Eichmann, who was executed in 1962 for his involvement in the Holocaust, was ordinary and his very ordinariness created a genocidal script.

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman also shocked us when he showed the scientific roots of Nazi violence in his book Modernity and the Holocaust . He provocatively argued that the Holocaust, far from being a barbaric counter-example to modern morality, was actually in line with many modern principles of rationality. We need such equivalent understandings, in the form of the narrative power of storytelling and the invention of a more courageous social science or a moral perspective, that can explain violence and explain the limits of the law in Indian society. No democracy can survive without the roots of such an ethical and philosophical imagination.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Professor at Jindal Law School.

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