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Friday, October 12, 2012

Violence in Gandhi’s India–How Can This Be?

I was living in Bombay in 1969 when the newspapers stated that there was ‘communal disruptions’ in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat.  Because of longstanding policy of government, reporting of any violence between Hindus and Muslims was forbidden on the assumption that it would simply enflame passions and expand beyond the area in which it started.  Government had good reason to be concerned.  In the ‘communal’ violence that occurred after Partition in 1947, an estimated 1 million people were killed, both Hindus and Muslims. The slaughter was as bad as that in the Rwandan genocide.  People went on a rampage and slaughtered neighbors with any crude weapon they could find.

 (Courtesy BBC)

It was almost impossible to find out what had happened in Ahmedabad, but eventually the story came out – once again violence, and this time by Hindus against Muslims:

A gruesome episode in the afternoon (September 20, 1969) brings out the depth of animosity against the Muslims. A young Muslim, enraged by the destruction of his property said he would take revenge. Upon this the crowd seized him, showered blows on him, and tried to force him to shout 'Jai Jagannath'. Staying firm, the youth refused even if that meant death. To this, someone in the crowd responded that he might indeed be done away with. Wood from broken shops was collected, a pyre prepared in the middle of the road, petrol sprinkled on the pyre as well as on the youth, and he was set alight with ruthless efficiency. What is remarkable is that there was no resis- tance from any Hindu. The wails of the Muslim inhabitants of the area were drowned in the celebration of the incident by the Hindus.” (Outlook India 11/02)

It was often like this in earlier days – an insult, perceived or real, was the spark that ignited killings and massacres.

Between 1961-71, 16 districts in Gujarat were rocked by communal violence, recording some 685 incidents in urban and 114 in rural areas. Of the 685 incidents in urban Gujarat recorded for the decade, 578 occurred in 1969 alone, during the worst riots in that ten year period. (Outlook India)

The violence not only continued but increased in intensity and the numbers of victims:

The phrase “Gujarat 2002” has, for the past decade, struck fear and shame in the hearts of many Indians. It marks a period of about three months, from late February 2002, when the Western state of Gujarat, and especially its first city, Ahmedabad, erupted into ugly mass violence targeted at local Muslim communities. About 2,500 people died (though official figures claim half that number), and tens of thousands were displaced, many of them permanently.

Whereas early outbursts of violence were thought to be the result of longstanding tension between the communities based on ethnic and religious hatred (i.e. no particular grievance but animosity, suspicion, and condescension passed on from generation to generation), the events of 2002 were certainly caused to a large degree by political manipulation:

The episode produced a sense of national crisis: the violence seemed overwhelmingly directed at the Muslim minority (though Hindus also died); much of it was heinous and brutal (particularly for women and children); and by all independent accounts, it proceeded with the full knowledge, support, and complicity of the state government, led by the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party. (Ananya Vajpeyi, New Republic 10.12.12)

None of this should be a surprise, particularly since the Rwandan genocide is still so recent (Hutu leaders even used the radio to broadcast appeals for their ethnic followers to ‘Kill the cockroaches”, the Tutsis).  Ethnic, religious, tribal and racial clashes have been common throughout history and primitive tensions have almost always been exploited by immoral political leaders.  It also should not be a surprise because such tensions are rarely the result of simple prejudice; but based on some perceived sense of injury, injustice, or lack of fairness.  Yet for these slaughters to have happened in India, of all places, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi and the home of Hinduism which teaches about the path to enlightenment, reveres the holy quest, and has structured an entire society around escaping the world of illusion to a world of pure spirituality, is truly perplexing.

I have always wondered since those days of communal violence in 1969 how this could possibly be when the tradition of non-violence has been a central feature of Hinduism for millennia and the expressions of Gandhi only the most recent:

The term that Gandhi used to spell out his political creed of non-violence was ahimsa, a term and an idea which existed for close to three millennia in Indian religious and philosophical thought, particularly in Jainism and Buddhism. The significant presence of Jains in elite Gujarati society exposed Gandhi to the concept of ahimsa, literally “the absence of the desire to harm others,” from a very young age. (Vajpeyi)

Political manipulation is the answer most commonly given, and blame in Gujarat laid squarely on the Chief Minister Narendra Modi:

Today the symbol of Gujarat is not Gandhi but Modi who is committed to the unashamed deployment of himsa—etymologically, both “harm” and “the desire to harm”—as a necessary tool of governance and development. It is his hidden agenda—the wish to dominate the weak, to put minorities in their place, to establish supremacy through bullying and hurting the most vulnerable of Gujarat’s citizens—that makes Modi’s politics starkly anti-Gandhian. (Vajpeyi)

Politicians have exploited the longstanding mistrust and hatred of the two religious communities for their ends for decades, no different from the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Africa, and the United States.

Yet, this cannot be all.  The savagery unleashed both during Partition and the Rwandan genocide was nothing like a civil war, such as we are witnessing in Syria now, or the wars between the Arabs and the Israelis, nor even the bombings in Belfast.  It was up close and personal, the hacking, slashing, skewering, and disemboweling of neighbors and former friends in a total frenzy of murder.

Some have suggested that the tightly disciplined social system of India was responsible.  In traditional Hinduism, every aspect of life is regulated and regimented, and one is always subject to elders, to those of a higher caste, and to the principles of religion.  Eventually, repressed urges must come out, and when held in for so long, are likely to be violent.

Others have suggested that it is the sheer numbers of people in India and its density.  One is never alone in India.  Extended families are large, and every day, every hour, everyone must rub shoulders with everyone else.  Such density and explicit if not implicit competition for space and resources add to the mix of frustration and resentment.

Still others have suggested that it represents the Bell Curve of human nature.  We are all aggressive, self-protective, and acquisitive; and we need to dominate the competition for power, territory, and resources.  Shakespeare’s Histories are brilliant examples of the endless, repetitive, series of rises and falls of kings, reigns, and empires.  This expression of human nature is the norm; and the wild, brutal, and seemingly unexplainably violent outbursts such as in Rwanda and Gujarat are simply at the ends of the curves – they are part of the same phenomenon, just not the norm.

This sense of inevitability was echoed by Indian leaders:

The idea that violence will bubble up and erupt, like lava that runs just beneath the skin of the body politic, has been used to ominous effect by guilty politicians. Rajiv Gandhi, son of the slain Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, spoke of the gruesome massacre of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi in early November 1984 as the inevitable destruction that ensues, the earth that shakes, “when a big tree falls.” Narendra Modi talked about the horrors visited upon Gujarat’s Muslims in spring 2002 in terms of “action” and “reaction,” applying the pseudo-Newtonian language of inevitability to killings that had actually taken months if not years to orchestrate and realize. (Vajpeyi)

Gandhi himself had doubts:

Even as an old man, Gandhi recognized, in his own stubbornly assertive sexual urges, the veiled face of his greatest life-long enemy, ahimsa: the will to power, the desire to dominate, the urge to do violence to another.

In Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State, (the book reviewed by Vajpeyi)  the author, Ward Berenschot concludes that it always political manipulation that causes riotous violence:

Communal violence is not the magical effluvium of disembodied state power—it is the carefully constructed artifact of what Berenschot names “riot networks”; and the communal riot is the visible outcome of a particular form of politics that Berenschot names “riot politics,” which carries on in a regular, routine, continuous way, punctuated by the spectacular episodes of violence that it is designed to deliver now and again. As elections take place from time to time in a properly functioning democracy, so riots take place from time to time in a properly functioning communal state.

The only conclusion is that because of an innate and immutable human nature which drives us to violent protection of our perimeters, one which is periodically enflamed and used by self-serving politicians, murderous rampages are likely to always exist.

What we can conclude with certainty is that Gandhi-ism in any of its modern incarnations will not work.  Ahimsa served as a brilliant political tactic in India and was equally successful in the hands of Martin Luther King; but will never be a guiding and influential philosophy.   The forces of human nature are far too powerful, and the venal ambitious of cunning and smart politicians have always known how to martial them for their own ends.

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