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Tracing the roots of violence

Oct 13, 2008

It is not sufficient to deduce the recent spate of communal violence in parts of India only in terms of power play, says Rajesh Kasturirangan, a fellow at National Institute of Advanced Studies. He brings forth the issue of clash of moralities to understand the contradictions within so-called ‘virtuous violence.’

A few days ago, in the midst of the violence against Christians in coastal Karnataka, the chief minister of the state made an interesting comment. He said the violence against Christians was in retaliation for the conversions taking place in that area. There are several reasons to find the statement disturbing.

Forced Conversion Violence

In principle, conversions are perfectly fine as long they are not coerced. Our constitution does guarantee freedom of religion, after all. But more menacingly, it cannot be overlooked that the chief minister's statement echoes Narendra Modi's famous claim about the Gujarat riots, about 'action and reaction'. Even those who find conversion unacceptable should be troubled by the possibility that Karnataka will go the Gujarat way.

An incomplete analysis

The current analysis of what one might call 'values oriented' violence leaves something to be desired. For one, it mostly denies that values have any role to play. For example, anti-minority violence is cast as a straight-forward power play, with Hindu fundamentalist outfits like the Bajrang Dal casting a web of terror in service of the overall Parivar political agenda.

Terror is surely being used to serve political ends and to consolidate the 'Hindu' vote before the upcoming elections, but that cannot be the whole story. Political explanations have the Parivar as cynical operators with no virtue on their side.

But, as we all know, the Parivar has its share of supporters who think that they are fighting for the good. So do Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists. I take their professed goodness at face value, i.e., that they genuinely and sincerely believe that their cause is the right one and that violence is justified in defence of that cause. Religious violence in India - whether of Islamic, Christian or Hindu origin - stems from a clash of moralities (even if the various camps share the same morals).

And conversion is not the only source of values oriented violence; there are other examples. Class struggle as practiced by the Maoists, for instance, is a secular example of violence based on conflicting moralities.

But modern, abstract accounts of right and wrong do not recognise the passions that drive our behaviour as truly moral passions. A leftist is probably more willing to acknowledge the moral basis of Maoist violence but even in that case, no moral reasons are imputed to the state that fights the Maoists. It seems as if, to our modern, universalist lenses these conflicting moral visions are invisible.

We, the good people

Why? For one, our modern ideas of ethics - such as justice and fairness towards all - sit uncomfortably with our innate feelings about the moral nature of human actions. For example, most of us consider the soldier who single-handedly kills thousands of his enemies (remember Rambo?) to be a supremely virtuous person. Yet, transplant that same action to a crowded market in Delhi and we think of the very same person as a psychopath or terrorist.

In the absence of a state that justifies one kind of violence but not the other, what is the difference between the two? From an abstract perspective, human acts are either just or unjust. So how can a soldier be a paragon of virtue when a terrorist is the very embodiment of evil?

The only explanation is that our primal intuitions about ethics allow for notions like nobility, honour, revenge and retaliation as well as fair play and justice. In our intuitions, a soldier is doing something noble while a terrorist is a coward for targeting the innocent. Unlike our laws that are universal in space and time, our ethical intuitions are context dependent and even contradictory.

For a given community, some of its values are surely conditioned by history and communal circumstance. Indian society has thousands of communities living in close proximity with others with whom they have long standing conflicts over resources and social prestige.

Is it any surprise that each community has its heroes who happen to be the villains of neighbouring communities? Or for that matter, when elections are used by communal outfits to capture state power (here I'm using 'communal' in its general sense of representing one community, and not in the religiously skewed current usage), should it surprise us when state functionaries openly support the demands of one community over another?

Unlike the politically correct mantra that says decent people everywhere want peace and that the peaceful majority is subverted by the political class, I think that it is precisely our conception of virtue that is the source of the problem.

Values oriented violence in India is driven by people who believe that they are acting in the best interests of their respective communities. Who can deny the earnestness of the Kar Sevaks rushing to Ayodhya in late 1992? When the good is almost always defined in terms of one community's ascendance over another, it is not the evil in us that makes us violent, it is the good. So how can one reduce the violence of the virtuous?

India: unlike other nation-states

In the nation-state era, the classic solution to the problem of virtuous violence is to legitimise violence by making it illegal within nation-states (i.e., the terrorist) and virtuous between nation-states (i.e., the soldier). In this scenario, we implement laws that guarantee equality and justice within national boundaries while allowing naked self-interest (albeit usually masquerading as virtue) to rule international relations. The nation-state allows us to be modern and barbarian at the same time.

The great advantage of a national identity trumping others identities is that we no longer kill our neighbours; they are our fellow citizens and co-patriots. Unfortunately, the cure of nationalism may well be worse than the disease. The twentieth century was the most violent in history primarily because it became legitimate to kill people from other nations.

Further, unlike your neighbours, who are mostly killed at close hand, with swords and knives, violence between nations has increasingly become remote, driven by bombs and other weapons that can cause wholesale violence from afar. Surely there is something wrong with a virtuous solution that only seeks to export violence across borders?

In India the situation is worse, for the very contours of nationalism and citizenship are contested. After all, isn't violence against Muslims routinely justified by their suspect patriotism? When the boundaries of the 'nation' run through every district, nationalist violence is no longer a problem for other nations, but our own. Unlike in the west, I think that the nationist-modernist solution cannot work in India.

We need a different strategy to address the violence of the virtuous. Laws alone will not guarantee peace; for those who are elected to uphold the law of the land are often its worst offenders. And as we all know, the state in India is not above the fray, it acts as a partisan agent. Therefore, the state cannot be trusted as the sole guarantor of our rights. That burden must fall on civil society and our society is a curious combination of the modern and the pre-modern.

The mark of a modern society is that certain basic human needs and rights are universalised and available to all of its members. There is a natural reason why abstract rules of justice dominate modern discussions of ethics: these rules come fully universalised, so no extra work needs to be done.

To a universalist, the presence of systemic oppression in India is not a matter of having the right rules, but the failure of the state in implementing them.

I think this line of reasoning is flawed, for it assumes that our ethical intuitions (especially the intuitions of those who have been hired or elected to uphold the law) coincide with an abstract system of the law. The law is uniform and context independent while our ethical intuitions are differentiated and context-dependent. The law and our intuitions might well be fundamentally incompatible categories. We will have to look elsewhere in order to find sources of a universalised ethics.

The family as the foundation

However much the progressive might deny it, the road to peace in India passes through its non-modern aspects. Some of the deepest impulses of Indian society - its focus on family and community, its toleration of difference - have to be plumbed in order to address violence.

These pre-modern factors are not purely law-like or universal principles. They have a massive emotional component. How can we tap into the possibilities opened up by these basic Indian intuitions about right and wrong?

I believe that as in many other social interventions in India, we have to learn how to universalise that most important Indian institution, the family. In an earlier article, I mentioned that the Indian family is neither a wholly subjective entity, nor a wholly objective entity.

The family controls aspects of our life such as marriage that in the modern world come under individual subjective choice but the family also intervenes in job selection and various forms of public life that are supposed to be based on objective criterion.

The negative ethic of the family revolves around exclusion and cronyism; note, however, that many if not most Indians think of getting jobs for their family members as a virtuous thing, independent of the merits of said relatives.

The positive ethic of the family consists of its capacity for care and obligation. In my opinion, a positive Indian modernity will be Indian to the extent it uses the family and other Indian social institutions as its basis and it will be modern to the extent these tropes are universalised to include other beings; all human beings for sure, but also other species and perhaps the earth as a whole.

Of course, the universalisation of an ethics of care and obligation is a tremendously involved process. Care and obligations work well within a family because these are people who we know well, meet regularly and share various resources. The sheer physicality of the family makes it possible for us to indulge it with care.

But a nation of a billion people is an entirely different entity altogether. Most of us live our lives out interacting with a tiny fraction of our fellow citizens. Is it at all possible to universalise norms of behaviour from the family to the nation? More importantly, aren't our families cesspools of violence? Is it even desirable to generalise our 'family values' on to our nation?

I think that as in the case of 'development' we may have to pass through a period of understanding how this can work. People still decry the Gandhian model of development because it made the village the centrepiece of the developmental strategy.

Indian villages were and are notoriously riddled with hierarchies and injustices. Nevertheless, it is now understood that the reformed Indian village can be the focal point of a decentralised and just national material economy. Similarly, a reformed Indian family (with gender imbalances addressed, to start with) can be the foundation of a decentralised moral economy.

While the task is clearly challenging, it doesn't seem any more difficult than educating all Indians up to class twelve. If we can aim to put each and every Indian into a school for twelve years and teach them physics, why not use the same mechanism to engage with the ethical foundations of the family?

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