Two developments this month have further pushed us and the institutions of our democracy into an ignominious spotlight. On December 6, in Hyderabad, the alleged rapists of a young veterinarian were killed in an encounter while in police custody. On December 11, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed by Parliament.
The celebrations which followed the encounter of the alleged rapists as well as after the passing of the CAA reveal a common thread that ties both actions together. In both cases, the perception was that “revenge” has been extracted. This was a narrative which both the police and the ruling dispensation was comfortable with in the respective cases. In case one, the policemen were lavishly feted for avenging the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, while in case two, the common explanation for excluding Muslims from the CAA was that non-Muslim minorities were mistreated in neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and hence, it was morally correct to exclude possible persecuted Muslim migrants from trying to enter into India. In a nutshell, the Act was dressed up as “revenge” on the Muslims for the alleged wrongs by people of their faith in another land. Even those who pretended that the CAA was a tool for revenge for the wrong doings against non-Muslims were aware of this background.
The desire for revenge is among the most intense of all sentiments. The morality of revenge, however, teeters precariously on its journey towards fairness. Revenge, as in the Hyderabad encounter case, is erroneously seen as fairness or justice even when it is neither. One may ask, then, on a “moral metre” of revenge, where we would place Udham Singh’s revenge on Michael O’ Dwyer? The American legal philosopher Joel Feinberg puts vengeance in close company with a longing for blood as well as with schadenfreude. In his book, Doing and Deserving: Essays in the Theory of Responsibility, he claims that whereas retributive punishment is righteous, vengeance comes from anger.
Thus, Udham Singh’s revenge on O’Dwyer, unlike the Hyderabad encounter, can be classified as retributive punishment. To make matters simpler, it should be crystal clear to us that police encounters are extra-judicial murders meant not to provide justice but to evade responsibility, remove witnesses/evidence or to reduce public pressure, as in Hyderabad. The police is a law enforcement unit, not a justice-dispensing agency.
The CAA is the handiwork of a majoritarian political party trying to fulfill the long-pending agenda of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). That the RSS’s agenda is to push Indian Muslims and Christians towards becoming second-class citizens is well documented. In the narrative of revenge, the celebration of the CAA by a large section of Indians is best explained by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of “ressentiment” — a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred, which cannot be satisfied. Ressentiment is not retributive punishment. It is, in essence, the transfer of one’s own pain or sense of humiliation, real or imagined, on a scapegoat. It is hence important to understand that this psyche of revenge works at multiple layers. In an Indian context, narratives of revenge can be built by those in power as has happened with the CAA, to a hide long-held hatred against ethnic and religious minorities.
The narrative of revenge in our country has been created and transmitted through multiple channels — cinema, folklore, literature, radio, television and newspapers. Revenge even forms the basis of some of the most important heroes of our mythology. Off the top of my head, I can remember at least 10-15 Hindi films which had the word badla (revenge) in their titles. Since our childhood, we have often heard stories of kings and paupers who extracted revenge on their most treacherous enemies. It is strange that, as a nation, we are hooked on to the idea of revenge. This is a dangerous proposition in a country which harbours a multitude of ethnicities, religions and most importantly, one which has a 3,000-year-old, well-oiled caste system in place.
It is thus imperative that we should be able to see through the curtains of narratives whenever we encounter one. Revenge as a narrative to justify heinous crimes like extra-judicial killing or to justify an unconstitutional law like the CAA is something that should bother us all. The moral turpitude of a law that views the right to citizenship through the lens of religion is something that must not be camouflaged by the blinding hubris of revenge.
The broken moral universe we inhabit today is a dangerous place. In a country trying to locate itself in an imagined past, anything and everything that is served on a salver of morally correct propositions needs careful scrutiny. Police murders like the one in Hyderabad are not events to celebrate but occasions to introspect. The total lack of faith of the common people in the judicial system is something which should worry us all. Similarly, total impunity in passing an unconstitutional law should also be an occasion to introspect. The more we think, the more we will get closer to truth. And fortunately, truth does not need a celebration. It comes wrapped in its own skin, impervious to rhetoric and deaf to bombast.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 21, 2019 under the title “The language of revenge”. The writer is professor of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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