Life and the theatre of violence

For the last few years, one has been a witness to extraordinary acts of violence and equally problematic responses to it.

For the last few years, one has been a witness to extraordinary acts of violence and equally problematic responses to it. Violence seems to be mutating in unexpected ways. Firstly, it is becoming more irrational and unpredictable. Even ordinary people explode with a rage that is troubling. To this irrational violence, two other developments need to be added. The first is what I call the “selfie effect”. I first noticed it at a local college where a student, inevitably the son of a VIP, kicked a security guard and posted a proud picture of it. Reliving the violence through the selfie adds continuity to it, making the consumption of violence almost fetishistic. People seem to enjoy watching violence and even playing chorus to great solo acts. Violence has become an almost celebratory act.

There is a second kind of theatre, which I call the “field of disasters”. One can think of three recent events. First is the Supreme Court ruling on excessive use of water in cricket stadia. The event is no doubt obscene but what adds to the obscenity is the way TV commentators speak about it. It is as if the new rituals of violence need a gross form of commentary that adds an extra layer to it. Almost as if without the patina, violence cannot be consumed. One sees such vigilantism and crudity in Arnab Goswami’s TV performances, which are imitated. Here violence as a crime and the judgement as a sentence and condemnation resonate. The demand for punishment and the act of crime or violence resonate to compound the violence. Violence, it seems, is lost without the accompanying hysteria.
Yet, there is a third level to this act of violence. One can see it in the Kollam fire disaster. Over a hundred people died and it is sad that the reports of suffering will die out as the next event occurs. There will be a forced return to normalcy. As the crackers resound next year, there will be little recollection of the deaths that happened. There is another aspect to the nature of response. Repeated reports of violence might increase the demographic impact but add little to the quality of response. Think of the farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. They are reported mechanically and repeatedly with the apparent redundancy of a weather report. There is complete indifference or silence around them and farmer suicides are dismissed as a fact of life or an act of God.

Except a few NGOs and a few intrepid journalists, there is almost no sense of concern. Even the gossip of such an event hardly moves to analysis about the fate of farmers and the consequences of debt in agriculture. The French writer, Albert Camus, was profoundly right when he said, “Statistics do not bleed”. Numbers, despite the weight of quantity, remain antiseptic and violence is taken for granted — a part of what I call the new ecology of indifference in contemporary society. As one compares response, hysteria and indifference seem to be siblings in the response to violence.

There is an even more worrying fact of violence today. It is the ease with which younger people engage in it. Killing your aunt, kidnapping the neighbour’s child or torturing a schoolmate seem to be just easy ways of extracting money. Greed or even little forms of desire for a movie ticket or a luxurious lifestyle seem to justify murder. Murder seems to be a quick itch as the lives around you seem to have no value. It is not just road rage; people seem to be trigger-happy, waiting for any pretext to engage in violence. It could be a traffic accident, a misunderstanding, competition, imagined rivalry in school — and the only resolution seems to be the act of murder. Any person who is jilted feels justice arrives only when he throws acid at the erring women. It is as if every citizen feels s/he is the executioner. The rituals of justice seem dispensable.

The anthropologist in me always moves from the act of storytelling to the act of census taking. The history of violence in India has to be written again as a history of violence to the body. Think of all the violence occurring due to displacement, malnutrition, riots, pollution, trafficking, rape, kidnapping and terrorism. It is not just that violence from pornography to obsolescence is increasing, the nature of response is also changing. There is no overall sense of the increase or even the inventiveness of violence in India. The ruling government often meets these new records of violence with indifference or denial. All they seem keen to do is celebrate small falls in the percentage of violence as if it is an index of good governance.

Two things are striking. Our culture today has no language, no set of robust dialects to describe or even comprehend violence. In fact, all our descriptions of violence either sound like TV vigilantism or cricket commentaries. Beyond language is the question of framework of values for judging loss and for describing suffering. The sheer scale of mass deaths, and the frequency of varieties of violence force us to ask a question. What is the value of life in Indian society? Do we really care or have we begun thinking that violence can be written off because it is an inevitable part of urbanisation or development? We seem to attach too small a value to life. There is almost no sense of mourning a loss as one reads the reports every day. Putting a price through compensation and insurance is not enough. We need a language beyond numbers to understand the value of life, of one life lost, one child dead, one language destroyed. How does one create a new calculus for the roll call of mourning I have listed? A democracy that does not understand the value of life soon underestimates the value of democracy itself. This, I think, is the beginning of disaster.

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