Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The violence of democracy and the democracy of violence: a review article

Amrita Basu and Srirupa Roy (editors), Violence and Democracy in India, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2007, pp 266, price not stated; ISBN 1 9054 2 231 8

As a principle, democracy is hard to argue with, not least because of the claim that it affords conflict resolution methods that prevent the all too ready recourse to violence. However, there is no arguing as well, with the reading that democracies invariably are born in historical intervals of extreme violence: as with the Jacobin reign of terror and the Napoleonic wars, and the American civil war.

In practice again, democracy in its varying idioms is applied across a physical space that claims for itself the status of a cultural unit, or nation. And democracy as a principle is embodied in specific institutions and processes of the political State. The State in turn centralises within itself all the legitimate means of coercion in a democratic political order. It holds, to quote a well-worn characterisation, a monopoly over legitimate violence.

Yet with all these agreed principles, the cultural unit of the “nation” is often defined in a manner that fails to accommodate all real and imagined communities of language, religion or ethnicity. Anthony D. Smith, for one, has pointed out how “many earlier ethnies disappeared, or were absorbed by others or dissolved into separate parts” as particular “national” identities were consolidated. And these processes were rarely gentle. They involved more often than not, large-scale warfare, and the ethnic cleansing and re-engineering of whole territories.

It would then seem that inquiries into the sources of violence in a democracy would need to be posed in another fashion: how well has a nation-state succeeded in effacing the violent circumstances of its birth from public memory? Where historical amnesia is accomplished with reasonable success, violence would be reduced to a minimal strain. But where memories survive, they are sustained and strengthened through successive bouts of violence. The virtuous cycle fostered by historical amnesia – of democracy growing and consolidating itself – would be replaced by the vicious cycle of history being reconstructed and relived in ever more malign fashion.

In short, the institutions of a modern democracy are not merely about enshrining certain values, drawn from a shared construction of “national” history. They are also about forgetting the more unsavoury episodes of nation formation. The “exceptionalism” of violence in democracies, in turn, is a consequence of this institutionalisation of agreed norms and practices within civil society, which clearly lays out what can be spoken about and what cannot. Once that consensus is established, the State can sheath its sword, confining its use of coercive violence to only the most extreme violations of the nationalist compact.

Yet the experience in India has been of the State’s monopoly on violence being repeatedly breached, of the State in fact, being unable or unwilling in repeated contexts, to defeat this challenge to its authority.

A current of opinion today professes itself thoroughly unimpressed by the Indian record in sustaining a democratic system of governance six decades into its life as an independent nation. Indian democracy in this reading is a shallow pretence. The mere fact that a country goes through regular elections does not make it an authentic democracy. Without internalising the liberal ethos, a nation that follows every procedure prescribed in the rule-book of democracy, would still be prone to periodic ruptures in the political consensus, bringing forth subterranean social impulses and a quite brazen recourse to coercive modes of dispute settlement.

In this respect, violence is not an “exceptional” circumstance for democracy, but a feature of its weakly institutionalised or de-institutionalised variants. As the editors note in their introductory essay to this volume, this much has become part of academic commonsense, owing in no small measure to theorists and ideologues such as Samuel Huntington. However, Basu and Roy, as the editors of the volume, share the larger concern of interrogating this commonsense and moving beyond the notion of “exceptionalism”. Their reading of India’s most recent experiences with large-scale political violence is quite simply, that democracy can quite often nurture the most virulent pathologies. Rather than remain isolated in mutually exclusive domains, “the aberration of holocaustian politics and the norm of democratic politics may well have significant points of convergence” (page 7).

This volume’s enterprise of transcending “exceptionalism” is driven by the proximate worries induced by recent political experiences in India, in particular by the communal conflagration of Gujarat in March 2002. Theory has begun to view violence from a perspective of “democratic exceptionalism”. In like manner, practical politics has internalised a view of the Gujarat bloodbath as an aberration, rather than part of the grain of democratic politics.

Gujarat 2002, in the perception of the editors meets several of the criteria of “genocide”. And the reading that this was no “exception”, is underlined by the fact that Narendra Modi, a constitutionally elected chief minister of Gujarat, was widely recognised to be the principal architect of the bloodbath and yet suffered no sanction or punitive action, whether through the processes of the law, or of electoral politics. Indeed, he was if anything rewarded, with a significant electoral triumph in December 2002.

Having drawn their lessons from the experience of Gujarat, Basu and Roy express their conclusions with extreme forthrightness: “In sum, the structures and logics of electoral democracy can often enable rather than prevent the institutionalisation of normatively reprehensible political-ideological formation. … (I)t is a tired truism that formal democracy has no necessary relationship with substantive democracy … .The story of how Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat as well as the sequel to the story – how and why he continues to be the honourable chief minister despite the events of 2002 – is directly linked to that universal shorthand for the democratic principles of liberty and popular sovereignty: direct elections” (page 9).

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Basu and Roy, while reacting with justified shock and aversion to Gujarat 2002, read rather too much into that particular trauma of Indian democracy. They cite “many observers” who have endorsed the description of Gujarat 2002 as “post-colonial India’s first organised pogrom or even genocide”. But on a continuum that includes Ahmedabad in 1969, Bhiwandi in 1970 and 1984, Nelli in 1983, Delhi in 1984, Meerut in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1993 – the events of Gujarat in 2002 may not really seem “exceptional”.

There is no denying though, that Gujarat 2002 was India’s first pogrom in the age of globalisation. It was televised nationally and observed globally. And it represented an international public relations disaster for a Hindu nationalist government that was just beginning to strut its stuff on the world stage as a reliable and responsible ally of the U.S. in the so-called “global war on terrorism”.

Gujarat’s “exceptionalism” perhaps lies in these features, rather than the ones identified by Basu and Roy. Far from being “genocidal”, the purpose of Gujarat 2002 – like other outbreaks of violence against the minority Muslims of India – was perhaps didactic in its intent. In other words, to merely teach the minority that the constitutional guarantees of equality under the law were just so much fiction and that they should, in the interests of self-preservation, accept the status of non-citizens in the Indian republic.

Indeed, if the catalogue of similar episodes of violence were to be stretched back, post-colonial India’s first “didactic” attacks on the minorities occurred in 1964, as part of a cycle of events involving the disappearance of a sacred relic from a Muslim shrine in Kashmir. As the news spread, reprisals began against the Hindu minority in what was then East Pakistan, impelling a vast influx of refugees into India. Those fleeing the communal rampage in East Pakistan, in turn, proved to be vectors of the spirit of retaliation. Wherever they went, there were retaliatory actions against Muslims, which enveloped in their baleful embrace, places as far afield of the original source of the disturbances as West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

These occurrences though not part of Willem van Schendel’s valuable essay in this collection, need to be recalled as perhaps the first clear case of the violence arising from the “territorial ambiguity” of nation-states formed in the retreat of colonialism. Van Schendel identifies three kinds of nationalist anxieties stemming from the ambiguity of India’s borders – McMahonian and Radcliffian (after the British bureaucrats who respectively, laid out the borders with China and Pakistan) and Kashmirian (arising from the circumstances of that region’s accession to India). Each of these has generated a particular kind of violence, visible most sharply in the borderlands, where the natural affinities of community and kinship have entered into violent confrontation with the territorial imperatives of separate nations.

The didactic quality of communal violence is underlined in Raka Ray’s study of Gujarat and her unpacking of one of the characteristic locutions of its principal architect. For Narendra Modi, the electoral outcome of Gujarat in 2002 was “a slap in the face of the pseudo-secularists”.

“Pseudo secularists” is of course a term with a long history in the Hindu nationalist discourse, as a description of the allegedly deracinated class that insists on fair treatment of the religious minorities in India, supposedly at the expense of undermining the primordial genius of the Hindu nation. The slap has a cultural significance as a duly earned right to administer a public humiliation to another. By this measure, the electorate in Gujarat had in giving Modi his victory, also administered a stinging public rebuke to the entire deluded community of Indian “pseudo-secularists”.

Martha Nussbaum provides a fascinating psychological deconstruction of the violence in Gujarat as a deeply symbolic act of asserting the power of nationhood, by penetrating and violating the deepest recesses of another’s value system. There is the identification of the nation with the woman. And the elaborate obeisance rendered to the virtues of the woman as mother and nurturer, is accompanied by the deliberate violation of the dignity of a perceived “other” nation’s womanhood, through brutal and elaborately choreographed acts of sexual violence.

Usha Zacharias and J. Devika explore an upsurge of violence in a coastal village of Kerala, where a social group excluded by custom from the Hindu fold, became an instrument of Hindutva’s vengeance against the cultural blot of Islam. It was an incident in which the newly empowered community saw itself pitted against the State, which was represented as the political embodiment of Muslim aggression. And yet, the assertion of solidarity with a larger cultural whole, was riddled with ambiguities. Despite all its manifest fervour, it failed to escape the exploitative relationship that Hindutva both crafted and capitalised on.

The volume also includes essays by Ravina Aggarwal on Ladakh, and by Paula Chakravarty and Srinivas Lankala on the construction of communal identities by the Indian media, a particularly valid concern in the context of the ongoing “global war on terrorism” sponsored by the U.S.

Zoya Hasan considers the failure of all mechanisms of accountability for atrocities against the minorities, and concludes that the so-called “commissions of inquiry” are no more than an elaborate ritual to buttress the perceived, as opposed to the substantive, authority of the State. At the same time, she suggests, Gujarat 2002 brought to the fore certain interesting departures from the tired old pattern: in particular, in the independence of will displayed by supposedly autonomous institutions of the State, such as the higher judiciary, the Election Commission, and the National Human Rights Commission.

Dina Siddiqi rounds off the collection with an analysis of minority politics in Bangladesh, of how the Hindu minority in that country is frequently reduced to the same plight that the Muslims in India suffer, almost in a reciprocal, action-reaction sequence. Though it departs significantly from the scope of the volume as depicted in the title, this essay provides valuable closure to its main themes. But in the magnitude of its deviation from the stated aims of the volume, the concluding essay underlines the difficulties of assembling a single hold-all volume from all the disparate approaches that seminar participants are likely to adopt, when asked to address a subject with quite so capacious a scope as “violence and democracy”. To say finally, that this is a volume strewn with valuable insights that just fail to be knit together into a coherent narrative thread, would perhaps be a fair assessment.

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