Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 5

‘It’s only words’ – The Normalisation of Hate Speech

The first prime minister of India, Pandit Nehru said that India is a country held together “by strong but invisible threads … a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive”. India’s national identity, according to our Founding Fathers, is not derived from commonalities of religion, ethnicity, language or even geography. Our idea of nationalism is spelled out in a constitution enshrining secular, pluralist and democratic ideals, where the many competing identities of its citizens can exist simultaneously. They hoped that the idea of India, an idea that embraced differences would eventually dissolve the many particularities that divide us and that casteism and religious hatred would gradually lose their divisive appeal. The boldness of this idea was predicated on that most basic and most important democratic principle – that in a democracy we don’t have to agree with each other on everything but only on the civic rules of engagement. One could be a proud and patriotic Indian and yet question the highest authority in the land. 

That bold idea has been increasingly tested in the years since independence and has come under serious threat since the current political dispensation came to power. The success of caste and religion-based electoral math has led to an unprecedented coarsening of political rhetoric. Indian democracy, once considered extraordinary for its scale and enduring existence has in recent years been enfeebled through increasing threats to religious minorities and xenophobic jingoism. This decline is most visible in the increasingly strident, unrepentant hate speech by public figures, further emboldened by the seeming impunity. 

According to a study done by NDTV in 2018, use of “divisive and hateful language by high ranking officials had increased by almost 500%” since 2014. The report states that there were “124 instances of VIP hate speech by 44 politicians, compared to only 21 instances under UPA-2”. The sitting Chief Minister of the most populous state in the country has famously spoken about the “love jihad” conspiracy where Muslims are allegedly on a mission to convert young Hindu women through marriage to Islam. The Home Minister has spoken of Bangladeshi immigrants as “dimak” or termites “infesting” the Hindu Rashtra, chillingly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda against the Jewish community in the 1930s. Others have warned of the “green virus” and on and on it goes. While there has been some retaliatory rhetoric from Indian Muslim politicians, the current climate of hate has clearly been instigated by the right-wing Hindu nationalist ruling parties and there is little hope of redress when the impunity to this discriminatory language is accorded from the highest office in the land. 

Unfortunately, the normalization of divisive, sectarian and hateful speech is not just limited to words. Words have power and, in this era, where we are seamlessly embedded in a continuous stream of communication coming at us through specific vehicles of our own choosing (Television, Twitter feeds, Facebook and Instagram timelines, or Subreddits), we are trapped in echo chambers which reinforce the same messaging.

What happens when hate speech is normalized and streamed into our daily media diets?

There is no globally accepted legal definition of hate speech and it is a highly contentious and much debated issue. Most democracies, including India (but not the United States) have some kind of definition and policies toward hate speech (such as Section 153A and Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which criminalise, respectively, speech that seeks to promote enmity between different groups and speech/acts that outrage/s religious feelings) but these are toothless paper tigers, seldom enforced and hence with little or no power of deterrence. 

Scholars have defined hate as identity-based feelings of extreme negativity towards others and hate speech as language meant to vilify the ‘other’s’ identity to the extent that the ‘other’s’ legitimacy and humanity itself is called into question. Comparing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to termites and characterizing Muslims as “the green virus” savages their very identity and constructs them as undeserving and contemptible, and this ‘other’ then becomes ‘less than us’. This classic insider-outsider status others the minorities to an extent that they are then seen as threats to the majority or traditional Indian (read Hindu) values which is followed by a call to arms to eliminate the threat of these ‘outsiders’. In other words, the normalization of hate speech is a slippery slope marking the beginning of marginalization of minorities and their construction as enemies deserving to be killed before actual violence is visited upon them. Cue the beef ban and public lynching of Muslims with impunity, the love jihad conspiracy theory, celebration of “goli maron saalon ko” (Kill the traitors) and many such atrocities which have unfortunately become so common place that they barely make the ticker tape on our favourite news channels. 

This kind of vitriol that was once limited to the margins of our society and considered extremist and “out there” has now been mainstreamed into our political and social discourse. It has jumped from the lecterns of politicians to WhatsApp groups, our Facebook and Instagram timelines and pitched battles in increasingly coarse and sectarian language are being fought among family members, school friends and work colleagues. Our political leaders’ vitriol has given licence to the general populace to give voice to their basest instincts and heed the clarion call of violence. Research shows that as the mainstreaming of this violent language continues unabated and unpunished, media and society stop labelling it for what it is and simply view it as rude, unfriendly or at worst insulting. This is extremely dangerous as history has taught us over and over again that hateful propaganda has been a primary tool of authoritarians leading to repression, violence and genocide. Words in the hands of masterful communicators have the power to hurt and not only the minorities because hatred hurts the entire society where it is bred and practised. 

Hatred, along various axes has always been a part of our history, but the fact is that this normalization of hate speech in our everyday political and social parlance is unprecedented and poses unique challenges to the “Idea of India” as a secular, pluralist democracy.

Purnima Mehrotra is the Associate Director – Research and Capacity Building at the Centre for Social and Behavioural Change, Ashoka University. She has experience across industries – education, research, advertising and non-profit.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).