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What do we do about the hate and violence in our society?

Shah Alam Khan writes: To cleanse a society of the kind of violence and hatred seen in the Assam video, we need truth and confession from the highest levels of leadership.

Written by Shah Alam Khan |
Updated: October 1, 2021 7:28:42 am
A video grab shows the photographer jumping on protester.

The video footage of a photographer hired by the administration stomping on the body of a man during an eviction drive in Assam’s Darrang district was brutal enough to make one think it wasn’t real. Unfortunately, it was. Even more unfortunately, it was just one of the many videos of abject brutality that have emerged in the last few years from across the country.

I wasn’t surprised when the concerned photographer was hailed as a hero by many on social media platforms. Twitter handles rechristened themselves with the photographer’s name and a few even announced him as an alternative to the Prime Minister and the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister.

The hate that can drive a man to stomp on the dying or the dead body of another human being is beyond imagination. His actions suggest rage. Mad rage. But what was he angry about? Was the Muslim identity of the victim reason enough to be so angry? Or was there something else, which we are missing? Such barbaric violence is bred in hate and, hence, it is imperative to analyse this hatred. Having said this, hatred, of course, is different from anger. Aristotle believed that anger can be cured by time, but hatred cannot. Anger is accompanied by pain, hatred is not.

As a student of medicine, I was made to understand the psychological basis of hatred. Following the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, US, Jessica Henderson Daniel, the then president of the American Psychological Association, said: “Hate crimes are the most extreme expression of prejudice. Compared to other crimes, hate crimes have a more destructive impact on victims and communities because they target core aspects of our identity as human beings.” We can very well imagine the destructive impact of such crimes in our country where religion, caste, gender, region, race, culture or economics can be a reason for targeting a cohort of human beings. Interestingly, the word “hate crime” is minimally used in India both in social and traditional media.

The ethical criticism of such violence and hate needs to be placed within the presumed landscape of India’s historical reality. We have seen that in the last few years, incidences of collective hatred and hence collective violence have risen significantly. But our criticism has always maintained that the perpetrators of this violence belonged to a lunatic fringe. We kept asserting that we were the most non-violent country in the world. Sadly, this is far from true. As a society, we aren’t non-violent. We are violent and cowardly — a brutal combination that makes us vulnerable to propaganda, otherisation, hero worship and easy to manipulate by those in positions of power and privilege.

Violence breeds in our veins. Across centuries, we used violence as a potent tool to rule. Violence has been central to our idea of power. The irreducible character of violence in Indian society is best depicted in the idea of the caste system. The spiritual legitimisation of something as discriminatory as caste is at the very heart of the structural violence that ails us as a society. The legitimisation of hate in India is thus a sine qua non of collective violence. If caste can thrive unabated for centuries in our society, so can the overarching scope for violence and hatred.

In her book Political Violence in Ancient India, historian Upinder Singh has used a plethora of evidence to show that state-sponsored violence had a unique, central position in the political discourse of early Indian history. She discusses at length kingship and violence as the basis for the sustenance of state structure. She rebutted attempts by modern historians at whitewashing the violent past of the country. Singh says that despite Gandhi’s understanding of the Bhagavad Gita as a manifesto for non-violence, most nationalist leaders were inspired by it as a text for an aggressive response to colonial rule. She writes that in Vinay Damodar Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, non-violence is an effete and negative value. Savarkar happens to be an inspiration and intellectual ideologue for many in the current regime.

The current surge of hate-induced violence (mainly against Muslims and Dalits) is also the result of a guarantee of immunity for the perpetrators. In the last few years, the surety of justice for the victim has fallen flat in this country. Violence is inversely proportional to the surety of justice. Convicts of hate crimes and murders like Babu Bajrangi, Maya Kodnani and the many perpetrators of the Khairlanji massacre have roamed free on flimsy pretexts. With collective hatred and violence, the responsibility of the individual is magically reduced. Endemic violence not only emboldens, it also guarantees a safe passage for the perpetrator. It “invisibilises” the victim.

Where do we go in this hazy mayhem that surrounds us today? Freedom from violence and hate should be a deeply cherished value. We need to learn from modern Germany, where not long ago the population was mesmerised by an evil man and his ideology of hate. The most important takeaway from the holocaust story is not the defeat of Hitler’s forces but the freedom of the common German from the murderous thoughts of hate and animosity against the Jews. Modern German society seems to have embraced cultural humility, something not many societies can do.

To believe that peace is achievable in this new India seems a silly thought at the moment. But peace is doable, as it was in Germany and Japan or perhaps even in the US, vis-à-vis the civil rights of African-Americans. To cleanse a society of violence and hatred, we need truth and confession from the highest levels of leadership. Hannah Arendt had once said, “When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.” Nothing can be truer in India’s story of violence and hatred.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2021 under the title ‘Finding freedom from hate’. The writer is professor of orthopaedics, AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal

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