Out of the Shadow

Published in Communalism Combat, January 2003

Dilip Simeon

The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell is one of the most profound books of the twentieth century. Written in 1975, it reviews the literature and sensibilities produced by the First World War, that cost nearly 20 million lives. It tells us urgent truths about modernity’s obsession with territorial boundaries, enemies and ‘selfless’ violence. One chapter covers life in the trenches – which covered a combined distance of 25,000 miles, three times the earth’s circumference – on the German French border. By 1916, soldiers had lost all hope of winning, and there were groups in the English trenches that called themselves the Never-endians.

The Great War ended in 1918, but the rise of fascism, the colonial wars of the 1930’s, the Spanish civil war, the second World War, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, wars over Palestine, wars in South Asia and Africa, the recent wars in the Balkans and the Gulf, the war the US and UK are keen to unleash on Iraq, not to mention the insurgencies rampaging throughout the globe, are evidence that the Never-endians were right. According to one estimate, the past century experienced (conservatively) 250 wars and 110 million deaths related to war and ethnic conflict. The second world war cost 55 million lives, and the last decade and a half has seen some 30 million deaths due to ethnic conflict. An increasing proportion of these losses have taken place among civilians. During the course of modern history, war has changed from being a strategic, military principle – the fare of martial experts – to becoming part of the inmost fabric of civil society. War has vacated its position at the nation-state’s outer periphery, where it supposedly protected the nation against external foes, and has migrated inward, culminating in perpetual civil war, an “internal colonialism”, enacted to control, eventually to eliminate the inner social enemy, or ‘other’.

What has this to do with the situation in India and South Asia? The central feature of a democratically run constitutional state is the existence of institutional mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of social conflict. The Indian state has always claimed to be such a state, and often (in the past) with good reason. The electoral system has functioned, on the whole with reasonable efficiency, and major governmental changes at the provincial and central levels have been brought about without recourse to dictatorship and military rule. Territorial and resource-related disputes between provinces have been resolved without warfare. However, over the decades public institutions such as the police and the criminal justice system, the electoral process, the legislatures, urban municipalities and centres of higher education have degenerated critically. The common element in this degeneration is the growth of violence and intimidation for the protection of vested interests, the criminalisation of politics and governance.

Symptoms of Breakdown

For the most part, this has been the effect as well as the symptom of right-wing extremism hiding behind the mask of religion and identity (of all hues). Sections of the left have indulged in ‘revolutionary violence’, that has sometimes led to the deaths of the very proletariat whose cause they espouse. Moderate centrist parties patronise goondas and criminal elements for use during elections and in manipulated rioting such as the carnage of Sikhs in November 1984. Private armies and paramilitary organisations have mushroomed over the past two decades, out of reach of the law. Mafia-style networks extract protection money, foment ethnic and communal hatred and may even acquire state power – the Shiv Sena being an outstanding example. Certain student and youth organisations take avowedly violent postures. At election-time the sale of illegal weapons goes up, numbers of criminals are mysteriously released from jail, arrangements made for the forcible capture of polling-booths, and persons with criminal pasts obtain party tickets – many of them actually become legislators. Laws meant to control hate-speech (such as section 153-A of the Indian Penal Code) are never enforced on communal agitators, thus encouraging them to expand their activities. In certain parts of the countryside powerful landed interests maintain private paramilitary ‘senas’ that conduct massacres in areas where poor peasants tend to resist oppression. The Ranvir Sena in Bihar maintains a paid cadre who get benefits upon injury. Rarely has the state ever taken action against it. Apart from the political arena, violence against women, exemplified in rape and dowry deaths is showing no signs of abating.

In November 1984, there took place one of the most shameful events in independent India’s history. Thousands of law-abiding citizens who happened to be Sikhs were brutally murdered by mobs supposedly acting out of ‘spontaneous’ outrage at the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Several leading Congress politicians were among those named by witnesses (mainly Sikh women). It took years for First Information Reports to be filed, and years more for cases to be brought to trial. The procedure became subject to manipulation, with several accused being let off on procedural grounds such as late filing of complaints, (although the judges were empowered to condone these delays). Twelve commissions of inquiry into this pogrom (euphemistically named ‘November riots’) have had their say – the latest is still at work. The first of these, the Ranganath Mishra Commission, severely indicted the police for omitting the names of influential persons while filing complaints, dropping serious allegations, and pursuing investigations in a perfunctory manner. Since there is no witness protection programme in India, the families of under-privileged victims of violence have no means of resisting intimidation. There have been a few convictions of socially under-privileged individuals. All senior politicians accused of involvement in the events have been acquitted. Some of them have been re-admitted into the Congress Party and will doubtless be campaigning in the next elections in the name of secularism and national unity. Till date the Indian Parliament has not had the courage of conscience to pass a resolution condemning the carnage of Indian citizens and condoling the surviving families. Our criminal justice system has enabled the guilty of 1984 to get away with mass murder. There is no doubt that the same fate awaits criminal trials arising out of the recent carnage in Gujarat.

Posing the Question

The word violence is a misnomer – we are now confronted by brutality and cruelty unimaginable in scale and intensity. Most modern political currents, from the extreme Left to the radical Right, with many moderates in-between, treat this phenomenon uncritically, and ‘tactically’. Moreover, the mistake is often made of focusing only on the identification of culprits. Political commentators (and party spokespersons), tend to speak of these events as if it was merely a matter of crimes committed by the Congress in 1984, or the BJP-VHP in 2002, etc. This attitude ‘politicizes’ endemic violence to the point of obfuscation – it fails to address its root causes, its flows and socio-economic functions. It also wishes away the stark reality that a fearful and terrified public is the most volatile basis for the construction of a fascist constituency. If violence and the growth of violent ideologies are fast becoming the means for the fascist reconstruction of the Indian state, it is incumbent upon the democratic public to confront the matter explicitly.

Why is there so much agreement amongst rivals on such a burning issue? I submit that violence is rapidly acquiring an autonomous position in the modern world, and that treating it as a tactic will add fuel to the flames. Can we argue that World War II, the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews and the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki have left the question of violence at the same uncomplicated place that it was at the beginning of the 20th century? Violence has been ‘democratised’ to the point where all civilians are considered targets, where the very distinction between civilians and combatants has been abolished. The century that invented the term ‘exterminism’ has left us with the fearful task of re-examining the crisis of modernity, of re-stating the political platform of social-democracy.

Civil war in South Asia has been unfolding for more than half a century. The partition of India was an escalation of communal civil war to geo-political dimensions. Sri Lanka is yet to extricate itself from civil war, brought on in the main by the explicitly sectarian politics practiced by its political establishment. The process has given rise to the one of the most vicious identity-formations in the world, the Tamil Tigers, who (apart from their use of children as soldiers), have systematically annihilated all moderate, democratically minded Tamil intellectuals. Sri Lanka now faces the prospect of a bargain that will enable the Tigers to implement their totalitarian programme. Nepal has recently plunged into civil war, a process for which the corrupt and authoritarian Nepali monarchical elite is squarely to blame. It is unlikely that the current international defenders of ‘freedom’ will allow Nepal to become a democratic republic – the task is rendered more difficult because of the violent methods adopted by the Maoist opposition. Pakistan underwent civil war in 1971, and the Pakistani Army has proven itself to be most courageous while massacring civilians and overthrowing its own governments. A combination of US-inspired cold war strategy and the communalism that underlay Pakistan’s creation has enabled the growth of jehadi tendencies and a fragmented polity. Given their fundamentally sectarian outlook, the Pakistani establishment’s support for Kashmiri insurgency has inevitably infused it with communal ideology – the victims of this are not only the tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits who have been forced to migrate, but also Kashmiri Muslims, especially Muslim women. Bangladesh has seen the resurgence of extreme right-wing political elements that subsist on communal hatred and India-baiting – the latest example of this being the organised attacks on Bangladeshi Hindus (perceived as being Awami League voters) after the last general election.

In India a fascist project of ‘unifying society’ by means of sustained hate-speech, communally inspired education and manipulated violence has been operative for decades. Its object is to undermine the Indian Constitution and forestall social democracy. Parts of independent India have been under armed occupation for 50 years. Given the lakhs of people killed in 1947-48, the wars over Kashmir and Bangladesh, the tens of thousands killed in massacres in 1969, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1990, 1992-3, 2002 etc., it would appear that this elite-inspired civil war is still unfolding. In the process, the criminal justice system is becoming defunct, and informal armies dispensing informal ‘justice’ are operating with impunity. In the light of these developments, I suggest that the following propositions be closely examined:

Violence generates an autonomous dynamic, that (potentially) transcends politics

Violence is the grammar of economic exploitation, social oppression and gender discrimination

The more that any democratic resistance uses violence, the further it strays from social liberation

The organisation of violence generates despotism and authoritarianism

Religion-based nationalism and identity politics are the breeding grounds of tyranny

The dynamism associated with violence derives from an unending spiral of revenge and irrationality, and is sustained by the patriarchal values of ‘virility’, honour and shame. Its generator is the binary logic of ‘otherness’, through which all forms of brutality become justified by reference to chronological sequence, as in the phrase: “they started it”. Because of this, violence tends to distort the ordinary sense of time and sequence, cause and effect – Palestinians and Israelis, for example, are suspended in such a spiral. Any serious social-democratic programme has squarely to address the question of violence, and place on its agenda society’s determination to liberate itself from fear and brutality. Because violence is both the _expression and the symptom of social degeneration and political crisis, placing it at the centre of a regional democratic agenda will generate a highly overdue social debate about the roots, forms and functions of violence. Questions of the iniquitous relations between the sexes, between social castes and classes, and the structured violence of the global polity, will inevitably acquire a fresh charge. The relationship between democratic institutions, and the military-industrial complex; between arms-dealers and insurgents; between violence in the family and in society at large, will come under social scrutiny. The sooner this debate is generalised on a South Asian, and not merely Indian plane, the more fruitful will it be for democrats in all countries in the region.

The Challenge for Believers

Religious concepts have of necessity to engage with universal values such as the human being, human life. But insofar as religion becomes associated with assertions of identity and power, a tension develops between the implicit universality of religious philosophy and the ethical requirements of pragmatism – viz., the notion that the end justifies the means. This is the beginning of moral chaos, and leads to the philosophical denaturing of theology. An accretion of values unfolds that is directly linked to the new political function ascribed to religion. Religion is admirably suited to co-option within the instrumental rationality of advanced capitalism. It takes the appearance of an antidote to the spiritless secularism of the money economy, but in fact becomes useful as a technique of mass control.

The more religion assumes the role of an insignia of political identity, the further it moves away from its ethical function. The dubious role of the Catholic Church with its pathological anti-semitism in the Spanish civil war, the European crisis of the 1930’s and in the career of Nazism; the implication of American Baptists and the Dutch Reformed Church in the racist politics of the American deep south and South Africa respectively; the stranglehold of expansionist Zionism over Judaism after the second World War; the prolonged degeneration of the fundamentalist current in Islam to the point that it has reached with the Taliban and Al Qaeda; the ease with which the violent right-wing in India has been able to assume the mask of Hindu resurgence; the transformation of the Akalis from their origins as an anti-imperialist and reformist movement of Sikhs into a communal political vector; the involvement of Buddhist clergy in anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka over the past decades – all this points to an alarming fact. Despite the existence within the major world religions of pacifist and democratic currents, they have thus far proven incapable of developing a civilisational ethic of non-violence. The result is that all religions are today in an advanced stage of ethical decomposition. The crux of the matter turns upon the question of violence and the doctrine of collective guilt. I do not wish to condemn all religious belief, nor tar all religions with the same rough brush, but merely place before the believers the challenge of transforming their spirituality into a power for non-violence, justice and social transformation.

Gujarat and After

In the aftermath of the heinous arson attack on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra in February 2002, the entire Muslim community of Gujarat was held responsible and punished for a crime committed by a handful of people. Many independent observers have testified that the state government bestowed its protection upon gangs that organised brutal killings and rape of innocent women, men and children. The police were neutralised by orders from elected authorities who had sworn to protect the Constitution. During the recent election campaign, hate-mongering was the order of the day, with the chief minister referring to refugee camps as “child-producing factories”. Persons seen to have instigated and participated in mob-violence were made candidates and have been elected. Revenge, retaliation and mass violence have been made instruments of state policy.

Some of India’s leading politicians have justified these enormities via the heinous concept of collective guilt, the doctrinal basis for the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews. Not merely Narendra Modi and his henchmen, but Prime Minister Vajpayee too, have repeatedly referred to Godhra as justification for the organised pogrom that followed. They have also repeated the lie that Muslim organisations did not condemn Godhra, implying that this was a good reason for the murder of innocent persons. Their explanations completely ignore the crucial difference between a locally executed crime and crimes sponsored and committed by groups enjoying government protection. Clearly, high officials of the Indian polity believe that mass murder is understandable and acceptable in certain circumstances. In this matter Vajpayee is in the exalted company of the late Rajiv Gandhi, who famously declared (speaking of the carnage of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination) that the felling of a great tree was bound to cause the earth to tremble.

The events in Gujarat from March 2002 onwards demonstrate that a section of the Indian ruling establishment is undermining the Indian Union and the Constitution. It includes political leaders, gazetted officials and extra-constitutional centres of power such as the RSS and its fronts. This section enjoys the support of retired police officers (a former Inspector General of the UP police, a former Director of the CBI are two examples among many), major industrialists, and wealthy NRI’s from the hard currency zone. Uncomfortable with the social-democratic potential of the constitutional polity, this section has launched what may be described as a surreptitious coup d’etat. This is to be achieved by a mixture of violence, communal propaganda and tactical participation in democratic processes. In stark terms:

The Indian Constitution is being deliberately undermined by those sworn to protect it

Democracy is being misused to negate constitutional rights and destroy democratic institutions

Extra-legal mob violence enjoys the tacit or open support of high state officials

The culture of violence and bloodshed is being propagated ideologically as a ‘nationalist’ virtue

Civil society in India is being rapidly converted into a war-zone

What is striking about the reactions of government leaders is the complete absence of any human compassion in their statements. Barring the President, not once did any high executive of state betray any sympathy for the plight of miserable humanity rotting in refugee camps in their own cities. All they were bothered about was their ‘image’, which they equate with the ‘image’ of India. The brutalisation of human conscience is the most tragic outcome of the politics of violence being practised in India today.

Beyond Violence

As we struggle to comprehend the dire predicament of Indian democracy, let us focus on the wellsprings of violence in the everyday life of the Indian people. Nearly three hundred million Indians belong to families working in the informal sector of the economy, among whom women and children are the most downtrodden. India’s savarna-capitalism uses caste stigma, stern patriarchal norms, constantly applied physical punishment and oppressive customs to keep wages abysmally low, ignore social security, feed hordes of contractors and middlemen, and effectively deny millions of Indians the benefits of modern citizenship. Instead of a regulated work-process, the ruling classes are busy consolidating an institutionalised Social Darwinism. The ideology of the RSS and its fronts is the most adequate doctrine for the success of this scheme. This is because of the central importance it places on the inculcation of violence – as sentiment, preparation and practice. Their world-view is simple: Hindus are too pacific; Muslims, Christians and communists are ‘foreign inspired’, we must teach them a lesson by beating and killing them whenever occasions arise. They have worked hard to propagate this outlook, and for various reasons (contributed to by the opportunism of certain moderate centrists and leftists), they have become the main political vehicle for the authoritarian transformation of the Indian state. The victims of their march to totalitarian power will be (as always) the labouring poor and self-employed artisans. Sporadically organised communal and caste violence is the preferred mode of governance of the Indian ruling class. It is reasonable to expect that right-wing social groups from across the spectrum will gravitate towards the BJP provided it can maintain just a semblance of constitutional decorum. That, however, is the moot point. And the reason it is so is that the cycle of violence unleashed by South Asia’s sundry fascists and militarists is demonstrably suicidal and self-destructive. We do not have to look far to observe this tendency.

These statements might sound exaggerated, yet I believe many Indians will agree with them. Since Prime Minister Vajpayee takes it upon himself to begin musing and calling for national debates when he perceives his liberal ‘image’ to be slightly damaged, let us ask him and his ideological peers to participate in a national debate on the phenomenon of violence. Is the Government of India prepared to condemn violent political activity, and enforce section 153-A of the Indian Penal Code on anyone violating it? Can it guarantee that Article 21 of the Constitution (allowing us to remain alive) will not be withdrawn periodically by acts of omission or commission by state authorities? Will it declare arms training by political para-militaries illegal? Is it unaware of the violence being practiced and preached by members of the VHP and Bajrang Dal? Why should jehadis and Naxalites be banned while the Bajrangis and VHP cadre enjoy the patronage of the central government? Will it clearly state why jehadi violence is terrorism but the VHP’s violence is nationalism? Will its leaders publicly announce that ‘outraged sentiment’ is not sufficient reason for people to go on a killing spree? Are they prepared to condemn the politics of revenge and extra-legal punitive action? Will they tell us why a prime accused in the Mahatma Gandhi murder case, V.D. Savarkar, with his avowedly violent and communal philosophy, is touted as a big national hero? Democratic civil society must challenge the ruling party and the Government of India to a debate on violence, rather than confine ourselves to community relations, important as these are. If the BJP refuses to commit itself to upholding non-violence and the rule of law, it will have demonstrated that the party of ‘cultural nationalism’, is nothing but the Party of Violence, pure and simple. It remains to be seen how long the chambers of commerce can maintain their profits amidst the mayhem.

The French village of Albert lies near the battlefield of the Somme, where the British Army suffered 60,000 casualties on July 1, 1916, and whose farmers still discover bones and metal on a daily basis. Albert is home to several military cemeteries. The sheer meaninglessness of the butchery and the enormity of the death of a single person in war is brought out in this inscription on a soldier’s grave: “A sorrow too deep for words”. But the graves of Albert are those of soldiers in wartime, killed on battlefields far from home. In India, ordinary people including little children face the prospect of being murdered in homes and familiar streets in peacetime. For the citizens of the world’s largest democracy, the pain arising out of the caste and communal massacres that never seem to end is indeed a sorrow too deep for words. Was it not our greatest compatriot, Mohandas Gandhi, who named killing dev-vadh, the murder of God? Every single human life is precious, every life snuffed out for the cynical political motives of the ruthless South Asian ruling elites is a treasure cruelly wasted. Humanity must step out of the shadow cast by its misdeeds, and launch the most wide-ranging of all mass movements, a global satyagraha against violence.

Speak the truth

Stop the killing