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The banality of evil

The creation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions is worrying. But, as the Alwar attack shows, what is more chilling is the ordinariness of violence

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Updated: April 7, 2017 12:05:31 am
alwar attack, gau rakshak, gau rakshak alwar, rajasthan gau rakshak, cow vigilante, cow meat, beef, gau rakshak murder, indian express column, indian express C R Sasikumar

The killing of another innocent man by a vigilante group of gau rakshaks leaves “ordinary India” a bit confused and perhaps a little troubled. Is this the new normal, we ask, where vigilante democracy will increasingly decide, outside the courts and outside the Constitution, on what is crime and what should be punishment? Or should this episode be regarded as an isolated deviation, an unfortunate pathology that will soon be set right by the majestic institutions of law? I have consciously used the term “ordinary India” in the opening statement because I sincerely believe that in “ordinary India” resides decency and a deeply-held commitment to karuna and ahimsa.

So if an attitude of active mercy and compassion and a belief in non-violence have been the gifts of this great Indic culture to the world, where does the act of severely beating up a 55-year old who was transporting legally-purchased cows for milk come from? Is it just thuggery come alive from another age? Is it poor policing? Is it economic collusion between the sellers of the cows and the vigilantes so that the goods can be sold several times at super profits, knowing full-well that the purchasers would be from certain demonised communities and, therefore, at a political disadvantage in getting the protection of the state? Or is it an early sign that the moment of truth for the India of decency — the “ordinary India” — has arrived? How will “ordinary India” respond?

Two details from the episode, as reported in the papers, make disturbing reading. The first is the report that the vigilantes asked people driving the vehicles for their name and then allowed those with non-Muslim names to leave the scene. There is something very eerie about dividing Indian citizens on the basis of community, about holding a community ab initio guilty. There is something frightening about the construction of a “we” and a “them” — cultural persona in hostile opposition — and then ascribing to the “we”, innocence, and to “them”, criminality.

The new form that this politics of othering is taking brings a deep disquiet because it is reminiscent of all the horrors of history from Rwanda to Srebrenica and from Iraq to Sri Lanka. In Julius Caesar Act 3, Scene 3, Shakespeare notes the following exchange between Cinna the poet and the mob out on a rampage to find the conspirators who have killed Julius Caesar. “Your name, Sir, truly”.. “Truly my name is Cinna”.. “Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator”… “I am Cinna the poet, I am not Cinna the conspirator” .. “It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart and turn him going”.

The second detail is even more unnerving. The vigilante group asked one of those transporting the cows to run away because he was elderly saying “tu buddha aadmi hai, bhaag”. He ran. Then they chased him and beat him up again. He died from the beating. Vigilante action, it now seems, has gone beyond vandalism. It has become a sport. Slaves in America were subject to such sport — “run you have your freedom” and as they were running, they were shot from behind; to the sound of callous laughter. The pravasis of India, who were taken to work in the plantations of Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, and the West Indies, have similar memories of such harassment. And today, we in Independent India, have added to that bestiality. This is more than a moral slippery slope. It leads to Jallianwalla Bagh.

It is not that suddenly decent India became dormant and allowed indecent India to surface. It is politics which is producing this perversity, a politics that has begun to transform the social fabric of our country such that the “soft othering” that had hitherto defined relations between religious communities — “they are like that and we are like this” — has now become a “hard othering”. Competitive politics requires the creation of an enduring vote constituency. The Congress strategy was one of accommodation, if not appeasement, of differences while trying to create a national political community. Secularism was its ideological plank, scientific temper its policy instrument. There were other elements to its policy portfolio but let me here limit myself to the cultural dimension of pursuing a politics of unity in diversity. So while the Congress may have, at the local constituency and even regional level, pursued a cynical politics of communal othering, at the national level it was committed to the Nehruvian secularism which gave to every religious community a sense of equal citizenship.

In spite of the demands of a pragmatic politics, the Congress normal could have a Muslim president, a Sikh chief of army staff, a Hindu prime minister, and a Christian principal secretary to the prime minister. The optics were right even though the politics may have been more cynical. All communities had a feeling of belonging to Mera Bharat. And, this feeling made Bharat mahan.

This strategy has today been abandoned. The feeling of belonging is under threat. Citizens are being divided by name and being ascribed de facto (not de jure) lesser rights protections by the state. (This Latin distinction must be made just to please their lordships who may protest.) We have now moved into a phase of competitive politics where the othering has changed from being a “soft othering” to become a “hard othering”, where a cultural adversary has to be created to consolidate the self. That the cultural adversary is another Indian, a brother from another mother, is of no consequence as long as he serves the purpose of consolidating the constituency. It has emerged. An antagonist to Indic culture, who is responsible for the historical hurt of destruction of temples and holy places, is constructed and introduced into the public discourse. Politics asks for historical wrong to be redressed. The politics of accommodation must be abandoned and replaced by a politics of assertive, unapologetic majoritarianism.

The historical hurt, one can understand. The demand for a salve one can understand because the wound festers. But one cannot understand its conversion into a politics of hostility. Who is responsible for the hurt? Not the “them” that is being blamed but the vagaries of a collective history for which we must all accept responsibility. Nehru gave us a conceptual frame to understand this history. He described India as a palimpsest where inscriptions of earlier histories are never fully erased and later histories, even when they write over them, show traces of the earlier period. That is how a rare Kashmiri Shaivite Sanskrit document can be discovered in the Malayalam script in Kerala. The politics of hard othering seems to have learnt its craft of divide and rule from the British colonial state. Internal colonialism in the name of nationalism.

This division into communities, into a “we” and a “them” by religion, into a nationalist “we” and an anti-nationalist “other”, jeopardises that great historical experiment of building a national community of equal citizens. By itself what is happening is deeply troubling. But what is even more worrying is the endorsement of this politics of othering by “ordinary Indians”. Friends support it. Neighbours support it. Family members support it. Cutting across gender and class. An esteemed colleague lamented, this politics has divided my home. The hostility has entered our soul. Karuna and ahimsa have no sanctuary. Reminds me of an argument made by Hannah Arendt, that when evil becomes banal, ordinary people will participate in it. The banality of evil makes young men chase an elderly man and beat him to death. For sport. Is this the new normal?

The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal

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