Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

Dividing Lines: How India ‘normalises’ violence

Published Sep 14, 2017, 4:10 am IST
Updated Sep 14, 2017, 4:10 am IST
Democracy in India is caught in the impasse between sheer inventiveness and frequency of violence and the emptiness of the discourse on it.
Protesters burn vehicles in Ahmedabad, during 2002 Gujarat riots. (Photo: AP)
 Protesters burn vehicles in Ahmedabad, during 2002 Gujarat riots. (Photo: AP)

Politics and social science can talk about ideology, institutions and change, but it somehow domesticates them into the routine language of predictability. In fact, it’s as if the language of management systems, control and regulation or the terminology of the market survey has taken over our understanding of society. Such a textbook world of expertise leaves too many questions unanswered. The greatest philosophical issues fade into the background and become mere noise. One such issue today is violence. In fact, we use the label “the Modi era” to capture our inability to portray this world.

Narendra Modi is symptomatic of it, but he is a mere case study than an analytical tool. Neither social science nor art is too preoccupied by this violence. We confront the most inventive fact of our time — violence — with cliché, which only helps perpetuate it. The violence of our era has not produced a painting like Guernica or the recurring motif of screaming mouths in many paintings of Francis Bacon or poems of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. We bandy about words like fascism without any clinical or philosophical sense of these concepts.

In fact, there is a cryptic baldness, terseness to our reports on violence. They tend to be short media reports giving time, date and place and the reaction of the local and Central authorities. Within a few days, the reportage lapses into silence. It is almost as if each story aborts itself in real time. There is no narrative or representation left. Noise becomes silence and silence fades to erasure in a fortnight.

A few days back, I stumbled upon Michael Peppiatt’s book on Francis Bacon titled Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir. What is particularly fascinating in Peppiatt’s book is the way he describes Bacon’s response to violence. Bacon and Peppiatt are clear that a language of empiricism or measure cannot capture violence. Violence for them can only be understood in two ways — through distortions of the body and through a decimation of language. The two symptoms of violence become two aesthetic avenues to grasp violence. The body as site, metaphor and lens becomes central to this attempt at understanding. Bacon, like Picasso, was fascinated by the mouth. For a painter the mouth was paradoxical soft, sensuous yet carnivorous. At a rational level, as Peppiatt put it, the mouth was the vehicle of explanation and rationality, yet at a deeper level of rationality it could explode into laughter and scream. It conveyed animality and promised humanity.

As Bacon experiments with the mouth and portraits of crucifixion, he realises the distorted body is an avenue to comprehending violence. Bodily metamorphosis and juxtaposition of bodily parts lent an experimental sense to comprehending violence.

However, as one reads reports on violence today, there is a casual census of number, a police report or a rumour of a promised inquiry, a sociological stereotype of the victim (caste, colour, gender, age) and little else. There is no attempt to understand it beyond the grid of social categories. We have to understand violence is the most inventive event of a time. It is innovative, almost botanically productive, as if one needs a Linneaus to classify it. One moves from the intimacy and brutalisation of the body in incest, rape and torture, to mob violence like lynching, gangrape to violence on a different scale like genocide, extinction or apocalypse. Yet, our reportage deals with diversity indifferently. One senses none of the struggle of a Bacon or a Picasso in comprehending violence, probing into the unconscious or are looking into body or language. Even the metaphors we use are outdated. The mechanical still underwrites a sense of reaction, the cause is still India, and there is “the butler did it” obviousness to the event. It is almost as if violence does not touch the narrator.

I still remember a scene during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots at Lawrence Road in New Delhi. As the crowds were going berserk, a Sikh driver driving a Coca-Cola truck was stopped and stabbed. A crowd of children, between 10 and 17, climbed onto the truck and drank it dry in an orgy of celebration of murder that I still cannot forget. How does one account for such violence? Do the children who danced around the truck and watched the murder remember the scene? Does it haunt them, or has it faded into indifference? What does such indifference mean today?
Today, our aspirational society almost sees an inevitability to the violence and is easy with the dispensability of people or a way of life. The word “development” makes the displacement of millions normal, necessary and inevitable. The concrete body of the lived world becomes the abstract body of the census.

The picture of the Muslim man begging for life during the 2002 Gujarat riots should haunt us. But at the most it is used as Exhibit A in some forensic report or a belated addition to some photography exhibition. In fact, rape is hardly seen as rape in the folklore of patriarchy that demonstrates the bureaucracy and the police station. The woman as victim is demonised as dirty, as matter in the wrong place or at the wrong time. She almost “wishes violence” on herself because her dress was too short or she was out late. She is punished for not understanding the requirements of the social. There is no sense of the silence and shame, the injustice that haunts her. There is autism in the narratives of violence. We use words like class, nation-state and security to explain away violence or stereotype it without realising the demographic inventiveness of violence. Democracy in India is caught in the impasse between the sheer inventiveness and frequency of violence and the emptiness of the discourse on it. By banalising it, by empiricising it, the abstractness, the scale, the symbolic power of violence is lost.
One desperately needs a Picasso or a Bacon to look at violence and describe it creatively before it becomes void, an epic narrative of little sciences. We lack metaphors to capture the concreteness of violence and heuristics to map abstract violence. We need a language to describe the surrealism of body parts as commodities, the banality of gangrape, the technological normalcy of displacement. One needs a new Manto, Muktibod or a Gandhi.





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