For years, I wondered what the great Indian novel would be about. Would it be about the family, its love and sacrifice, would it be a development story or a battle against development as in the great struggles against the Narmada Dam or would it be about sexual liberation or a parallel narrative about the great Indian diaspora? More and more I think the great Indian novel would be an epic of violence. Narratives of violence are creeping into the Indian imagination so that violence is a growing thesaurus of expressions including incest, rape, torture, terror, displacement. Very soon social scientists will have to produce year books of violence similar to year books of environment or international relations.
One has to begin by exploding favourite assumptions of Indians and the Indian nation-state, that we are a peaceful nation-state, that we are a peaceful people; that our nation-state emerged from a peaceful struggle. Gandhi is presented as a sample of our peace-loving genes. But if the Indian nation has a creation myth, it is Partition and the Bengal famine — two great acts of genocide that helped shape the character and content of our nation-state.
Conceived in violence; both nation-state and society have been stunningly innovative affairs. Statistics do not bleed but statistics can reveal the depths of our violence. Consider the following litany of numbers.
Dams and related projects have displaced over 40 million people, many of whom have been displaced twice from their homes. Next to dams, riots have become the second biggest cause of displacement. Today, India has displaced over 10 million people. Agricultural suicides in the last decades have claimed roughly 200,000 lives. Sexual trafficking is a major industry and child trafficking involves about three million people. Indian attitudes to fetuses has claimed over a million lives and promises to increase exponentially. India rates of incest are so high that government does not care to release the statistics.
India violates the human body. It is the centre of surrogacy where wombs are rented out. Add to it a simple fact that over 125 of our legislators in Uttar Pradesh are or have been accused of rape or murder. To cap it all, India has over one million troops for maintaining internal order.
One wishes the census of violence could stop here. I think beyond the number as census, one must catalogue the stages in the changing quality of violence. Imagine one began in the early ’50s with two forms of genocide haunting our imagination. The early decades saw the Ginjams revolts but violence in a systematic institutionalised form started crystallising in the ’60s and ’70s.
Naxalbari ranks as one of the first transitions reflecting not a revolt of people but use of systematic terror and torture against our own people. The Emergency consolidated and banalised violence by using development projects like city planning and family planning as forms of violence. The Emergency hybridised the criminalisation of the state to de-institutionalise our banks, courts, universities and our trade unions. The Emergency has quietly continued in quieter forms throughout fragments of India. The Bhagalpur blinding has entered the folklore of violence but never quite made it to the archives of violence in India. 1984 added to other forms of violence, adding to its diversity and “systematicity”. Violence was proving less and less spontaneous. 1984 was the first time the state committed an act of genocide against its people. What ’84 began, Gujarat in 2002 consolidated.
Bhopal was the first industrial disaster of major proportions. In both riot and disaster, the period of the aftermath saw indifference developed as a fine art of violence. Bhopal and Gujarat were both ironies of justice. Union Carbide, now a defunct company, obtained a waiver from criminal responsibility and the guilty, especially the powerful ones, have rarely been bought to book. In Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, the former MLA convicted for being complicit in riots, is a morsel sacrificed to silence protest.
Gujarat was systematic in terms of violence. The systematic use of chemicals, the use of computer print outs to track people, the use of mobile phones to coordinate violence proved that Gujarat was not a reactive, spontaneous affair as claimed by L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi.
By this time the displacements at Narmada almost become a redundancy. What made Narmada particularly poignant was the recent protest by villagers who immersed themselves in water to force attention on their sufferings that we have forgotten.
In fact more puzzling than violence is the indifference and erasure that follows it. Whether it is a caste atrocity, a gangrape or a dam displacement, we drown our mega-acts of violence, even genocide, with silence. It is this which makes one wonder how long is India going to be a decent society. Sadly our development models encourage the same sense of abandonment of minorities and marginal. Words like development, growth are bugle calls to abandon the tribe and craft to the dustbin of history.
Given this indifference, terror becomes the final stroke. Terror is a form of violence indifferent to its victims. It summons attention without demanding justice. Terror is indifferent to the biography of victims. It is the most meaningless form of violence, completing the nihilism of the nature of violence.
Faced with such a census of violence, the sociologist realises that all that is left to fight is a sense of memory, a feeling of decency accompanied by what we call the rudiments of the rule of law. Indian democracy faces violence within and without. We have been silent about Afghanistan, calculated about Myanmar. Talking security we remain indifferent to peace and rights.
I am listing all this because it is time society takes a stand, forces itself to remember and become story teller. Between an ethics of memory, a ritual of storytelling and an appeal to dignity, we may be able to return the rudiments of democratic life to these areas. Violence, we have to realise, is the real abrogation of the integrity of citizenship.

The writer is a social science nomad


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