Categories
Issue 10

Power, Violence and The State: Can one exist without the other?

Maintaining a power structure has historically always involved some level of violence. The British once ruled the largest empire in the world, and violently suppressed revolts and uprisings that took place in their colonies. In North America, as the Atlantic slave trade flourished, men and women who had been free citizens in Africa often rebelled against their masters. These rebellions were also met with violence and death. Today though empires have broken up into nation states and slavery has been abolished, violence is still an important tool in the arsenal of any authority.  

According to the World Health Organization, violence is the “intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”  The role and importance of violence in the political order is a long-debated subject. Some, such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, gave violence a prominent role in human affairs. More recently Foucault and Arendt argued against the idea that violence was at the essence of human nature. Realistically, nation states today still center the political order around threatened or actual violence, in keeping with Weber’s definition of the state as that which has a monopoly over legitimate violence 

The police and the army as well as any other defense forces of a country enjoy a great deal of power. Ostensibly, they are meant to protect the people of that country from external and/or internal threats. By and large, it is widely accepted that nation states need some sort of protective body with the power to use force, both at the local and national level, and that this protective body ultimately benefits the citizens. It is when the use of force becomes excessive and unjustified that the role of these bodies begins to be questioned. What leads authority figures to abuse their power? What constitutes an abuse of power, especially in places where violence is institutionalized? 

If you thought you were in danger, or you needed help, would you call the police? If you answered no, you would be in the majority in India. A survey conducted in 2018 found that only a quarter of Indians trust the police. India has a long and troubled history of police misconduct, and many police practices date back to the days of colonial rule. The Police Act of 1861 allowed police to maintain law and order through the use of brutal violence. It was a way for the foreign rulers of the time to assert their power. Though India is now ruled by a democratically elected government, police brutality continues.

In June 2020, two men were arrested in Tamil Nadu for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules and tortured in custody. They both died a few days later. The incident sparked outrage and led to protests against police brutality, with many likening the incident to the death of George Floyd in the United States. While the episode was deeply disturbing, suspects dying in police custody is by no means a recent phenomenon.  According to the National Human Rights Commission, 194 people died in police custody in 2019. It is rare for police in India to be tried and convicted for these deaths, or even questioned. According to the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, no police officers have been convicted of a crime since 2011, while there have been almost 900 deaths in police custody during the same period.

 The Indian army, controlled by the central government, has also been accused of undue violence. In 2016, a plea was filed by two NGOs in Manipur, stating that there had been apathy on the part of the central and state governments in investigating the deaths of 1528 people who died at the hands of the Indian army and Manipur police. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been in force in several parts of  North East India since 1958. It was enforced in Manipur in 1980. Under this act, security forces cannot be prosecuted for any action undertaken or said to be undertaken under the powers of the Act, while in service in conflict regions, unless the prosecution is sanctioned by the central government. This exemption from punishment for actions, even those involving lethal force, can create a culture of impunity in areas where the Act is in force. In the 2012 PIL case, the government argued in the Supreme Court that a lack of immunity from prosecution would have a demoralizing effect on the armed forces. Violence is used to reify the state’s sovereignty and allows it to assert its dominance. 

Cases of excessive violence, where victims are tortured or killed in especially brutal and violent ways, are what necessitate an investigation into the relationship between power and violence. Thangjam Manorama was killed by the 17th Assam Rifles (a unit of the Indian army) in 2004. A report that was made public a decade after her death describes how she was tortured on her front porch and had 16 bullet wounds on her body when she was found. The original argument for AFSPA, which was meant to be a temporary act, was that state forces needed sweeping powers to deal with terrorism in disturbed areas. While this argument can justify shoot-on-sight orders or arrests without warrants, it does not explain torture and extremely brutal killings. Explanations of this abuse of power must delve into the human psyche, cultures of impunity, and power structures in the modern nation state. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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).

Categories
Issue 8

Leading up to the Historic Mahapanchayat: Hindu-Muslim Relationship Since 2013 in West UP

Social media is fuelled with people expressing apprehensions and even anger over all the excitement around Rakesh Tikait who recently extended his support to the protesting farmers at Ghazipur border. Rakesh Tikait is the farmer leader and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Most of the public anger stems from BKU’s role in the 2013 sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. 

Source: https://youtu.be/E4l2wCeRXtk

What Followed Was Regret & A Call For Unity

It has been over seven and a half years since that madness engulfed West UP. We saw BKU split while many new factions emerged. The noticeable split was the breaking away of Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, the biggest Muslim leader of BKU, often considered as late Baba Tikait’s right-hand-man. 

Interestingly, once when Ajit Singh (founder and Chief of Rashtriya Lok Dal, political party in West UP), and son Jayant Chaudhry (RLD leader) lost elections in 2014, many older Jats in the region were crestfallen. Many of them sobbed, “humne chaudhary sahab ko kaise hara diya.” Many Jats were always upset with their younger generation for indulging in violence that occurred in 2013. Secretly between those sobs, they’d often say, “hope it’s not too late before our youngsters realize where they’ve gone wrong.” This is not to insinuate that elders from the community were not involved in the violence. But those who had seen the heydays of BKU and RLD understood the futility of the madness. They understood that Muslims of the region were an inseparable part of their existence (within which there are contradictions of caste among Muslims in the region – but that’s another topic of discussion).

Some local level Jat leaders such as Vipin Singh Baliyan among others, have put in their share of effort to undo the Hindu-Muslim rift. Those efforts, while commendable, were small and acted as only a small drop in an ocean of hatred and bitterness that West UP had become. Around five years after the riots, there were, finally joint Hindu-Muslim Kisan Panchayats which were led by people like Thakur Puran Singh, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula etc.

Finally, there was a massive rally led by Rakesh Tikait that came to Delhi with a set of ten demands, just before the 2019 elections. Both Hindu and Muslim farmers particpated in that rally. Many other Unions extended support to the movement. Delhi was again under siege. Even though all the demands had not been met, the rally was called off. Many were upset, and felt that he had been bought over by BJP. After 2019, there were many protests in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts led by BKU. What was interesting – the presence of many Muslim farmers in at protest demonstrations. Many were post-holders of BKU as well. It was evident that Rakesh Tikait was trying hard to revive BKU while Naresh Tikait (the current President of BKU and elder brother to Rakesh Tikait) had evidently been sidelined. 

The Trust Deficit

In the 2013 Mahapanchayat where BJP had completely hijacked the BKU stage, it was Nresh Tikait who was seen on that stage with BJP leaders. He continued to make inflammatory statements even after the 2013 violence in the districts. Over the last two-three years, it seems that Rakesh has taken over the reins of the Union and sidelined Naresh because of the communal politics that one has begun to associate him with. Whether this is an ideological clash between the two brothers or a tactical move, only they know. 

Once the anti-farm bills reached the borders of Delhi, eyes were set on borders lining Ghazipur as well. Why wasn’t West UP joining the protests with the same intensity and fervour that their farm movements have been known for in the past? Truth be told, while many farmers were very keen to join the movement, there laid a massive trust deficit with Rakesh Tikait. Many suspected that he was a BJP agent who could flip any minute.

Towards Bridging the Divide

However, the events on the night of 27th January at Ghazipur border changed that perception. A large police contingent was out to remove the protesting farmers from the border. The very emotional appeal by Rakesh Tikait in a video message where he was seen crying has stirred West UP farmers in action. Among the most prominent words he said was the admission of guilt of once having supported BJP, a decision he said will always regret. That night saw thousands of people gathering outside Tikait’s house in Sisauli village in Muzaffarnagar district. Two days later, on 29th January, a historic Mahapanchayat attended by several thousands, took place in the district. 

Among the key speakers at the Panchayat was Ghulam Mohammad Jaula. He minced no words. “The two biggest mistakes you’ve made so far,” he said, “one, you got Ajit Singh defeated, and two, you killed Muslims.” Interestingly, there was no booing, no attempts at shutting him up. A pin-drop silence. Introspection. Other speakers added, “we will never get carried away by BJP again.” A very rare decision taken at the historic Mahapanchayat – to boycott the BJP. Rare for maha-panchayats to publicly disown a political party.

Even today as the groundswell of support from farmers continues to increase at the Ghazipur border from districts like Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut etc., similar views are echoed. “2013 was a big mistake.” “BJP abused our anger, and we got carried away.” “BJP and SP are responsible for the 2013 situation.” And most importantly, “BJP grew in West UP in 2013 because of Muzaffarnagar riots, it’s downfall will also begin in the same Muzaffaranagar.” The most prominent slogans of BKU, “Har Har Mahadev, Allahu-Akbar,” which echoed through the boat club in 1988 may soon be back.  

The Unanswerable Questions, and Small Steps

Does this easily erase the past? Does this heal wounds of 2013? 

As someone who made a film on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and having witnessed the trauma, destruction and polarisation they had caused, I don’t have an answer. Maybe. Maybe not. Those 60,000 people, essentially Muslims, who were displaced and will never go back to their native villages. Should many, who were responsible for the violence, but today regret the past be given a clean chit? Is this genuine redressal? We don’t have any answers. What we do know is that West UP has suffered enormously in the past. The spiralling effects have been grave. Many continue to suffer.Yogi as the CM wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for 2013, and perhaps Modi as PM as well. What we do know is that the recent events at West UP will go a long way in healing and bringing back some peace in the troubled parts of West UP. Even personal relations between Hindus and Muslims will witness renegotiations. This is not to suggest that this changes everything. But each of these steps count for something. 

While many raise apprehensions about Rakesh Tikait even now, and perhaps rightly so, one needs to approach the situation with patience in these difficult times as such churnings are crucial. The damage that the ruling government has done to India will take long to be amended. Sometimes even fraught with contradictions. Impulsive reactions won’t help anyone. Many fault lines still exist in West UP. Unlike Punjab where militant Farmers’ Unions have been active for many decades, Haryana and even West UP (including BKU) rely on Khaps to mobilize farmers. Feudal attitudes will take time to break down. But the Mahapanchayat on the 29th was a sure, small but significant step towards democratization of that society.  

Image Credits: National Herald

Nakul Singh Sawhney is an independent documentary filmmaker. His notable feature length documentary films include, ‘Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyaan’ and ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…’. He is the founder of a film media collective in West UP, called ChalChitra Abhiyaan. ChalChitra Abhiyaan trains youth from marginalised communities in West UP to make their own videos on relevant issues in the area. These videos have often brought out grassroots news to the public domain on contentious issues when the mainstream media has looked away. The collective also screens their videos and other films (both Indian and international) in various villages and townships of West UP.

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).

Categories
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).

Categories
Uncategorized

My Son’s Inheritance: India’s Invisible Violence

By Aparna Vaidik

Published by Association for Asian Studies on Thursday, August 27 2020.

Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of non-violence are facets of Indian history that have inspired generations of world leaders from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Also perpetuating this image of India as a land of non-violence and tolerance are some other facets of India’s history such as the conversion of the ancient Emperor Ashoka Maurya to Buddhism; his adoption of non-violence as a state policy in 3rd century B.C.; and the existence of a composite culture known as the “Ganga-Jamni sanskriti” (the comingling of waters of rivers Ganga and Yamuna), a referent to the peaceful Hindu and Muslim cultural intermixing in the Subcontinent. Indian public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor have invoked these elements of India’s historical past to debunk majoritarianism, to decry communal conflict, and to critique right-wing political agendas.

Violence, if at all examined, is primarily done through the Weberian lens by studying state actions such as battles, wars, or political retribution. Other than that, it is the episodes of communitarian riots, gender violence, and subaltern resistance that are scrutinized. Seeing violence as episodic phenomenon, on the one hand, pathologizes it as an aberration or turns it into an exception in need of an explanation; and, on the other, reinforces the presumption that Indian society is fundamentally peaceful, non-violent, and tolerant. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India challenges this munificent image of India to show that the ubiquity of violence has rendered it banal and thereby historically invisible. It asks, how is the violence not visible? Why is it invisibilised? How does it turn into a secret? What allows the unconscious denial of the existence of violence? Who are the recipients and witnesses of this violence? Finally, what is this violence?

My Son’s Inheritance traverses several centuries and explores the history of Vaishnavism and warrior cults in northern India; the history of Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century reformist organization; the role of a violent cow-protection movement in forging the Hindu majoritarian identity; and the myths of Hinduism that invisibilised the oppression of the lower castes in the Subcontinent. It uses pamphlets, popular publications, prints, poetry, and myths, as well as my own family history, to offer a cultural reading of violence. The book demonstrates how violence is secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language, and is therefore invisible. Framing my narrative as a message to my son, I acquaint him with his ancestors—those who abet and carry out lynching as well as those who are lynched. In this way, the “son,” a metaphor, embodies both the violator and the violated, much like the country in which he will come of age. The book lays bare the heritage of violence bequeathed from generation to generation and disabuses us of the myth that holds nonviolence and tolerance as being the essence of Indian culture.

The book argues that perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police, or the army, but the ordinary Indian who thinks of India and Hinduism, the majoritarian religion of the Subcontinent, as tolerant, spiritual, and non-violent. This person is often the silent witness or a bystander to whom the violence in Indian society remains invisible. In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust, or Shoah, but also the normal, ordinary, everyday people who went about their everyday lives, did their jobs and obeyed the laws. It is easier to understand the mind of thinkers and ideologues but, as Arendt shows, it is immensely hard to fathom the mind of an ordinary person. Carlo Ginzberg has attempted this in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which seeks to understand an ordinary miller’s notions of how the cosmos came into being. In a similar vein, My Son’s Inheritance examines an ordinary law-abiding Indian’s mentality that either denies the existence of violence or sees it as something that foreigners or wrongdoers indulge in.

The inheritance of this violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in a form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption comes up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone? According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in Indians owning up to their history of violence. The choice is to either hide one’s shame and generate even more violence, or to own up to one’s historical shame and break the silence around violence. For it is our silence borne out of privilege that perpetuates violence.

This is a crossover book written as creative non-fiction. A nagging worry as I embarked on this project regarded crafting the narrative. After writing years of staid academic prose, I felt unsure about transitioning into a more conversational narrative style. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I had imagined. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew served as narrative inspiration. Choosing a creative narrative strategy also required me to make “travel-style” field trips, first to my hometown, Indore in Central India and, second, to the ancestral shrine in the small town in Rajasthan. The histories of both places are woven into the book’s narrative. I was now seeing them with the eyes of a writer.

As I started conceptualizing this project, the question for me was how do I tell stories of violence? How do I narrate stories of conflict in a non-conflictual manner? How do I not fill the hearts of the audience with hate in talking about hate? How do I persuade people to pause and examine their own complicity in perpetuating structures of violence? These questions were also arising from the loss of my belief in the persuasive power of the historical mode of narration. For a while I had felt that we needed to tell historical narratives differently, ones that were more accessible to the public. This book is an acknowledgement of the fact that we as social scientists and humanists are accountable to not only one’s peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in.

This article was first written for https://www.asianstudies.org/. The author has commissioned it for use by OpenAxis.

Aparna Vaidik is a decorated academic and an Assistant Professor of History at Ashoka University (India). Here she writes about her new book My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Aleph, 2020).

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).