The savage in the mirror? It’s We the People

This Republic Day, as we celebrate the promise of democratic India, this one fact is inescapable: savage violence is our national language.

Praveen Swami January 26, 2019 09:03:47 IST
The savage in the mirror? It’s We the People

"On your right," wrote the philosopher Umberto Eco, after a visit to the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Vista, "you see Dracula raising the lid of a tomb, and on the left your own face reflected next to Dracula's, while at times there is the glimmering figure of Jack the Ripper or of Jesus, duplicated by an astute play of corners, curves, and perspective, until it is hard to decide which side is reality and which illusion."

"A shadowy character is outlined against the background of an old cemetery — then you discover that this character is you".

Then, hidden away in our newspapers, there are these stories: the Hyderabad drunk who beheaded four puppies, and flayed a fifth to death, in August; the two Ghaziabad men who raped and killed a bitch, mother of a litter of five, in December; the Delhi security guard who tied eight puppies into a sack, and threw them off the third floor.

In Kolkata, this month, we had the nursing student, who may one day watch over our children in a hospital ward, bludgeoning 16 puppies to death.

The savage in the mirror Its We the People

Representational image. AP

Each of these stories takes us into a world of savagery as strange as Eco's house of horrors. Each one of them is true. And each one ought be a prism to reflect upon ourselves.

This Republic Day, as we celebrate the promise of democratic India, this one fact is inescapable: violence is our national language. The young people who, across the Hindi-language heartland, find agency and meaning in lynching humans they suspect of killing cows, are merely one symptom.

There are Kashmiri parents who cheer teenagers killing for Islam; caste groups who applaud the murder of young people guilty of nothing but being in love; men who spill their frustrations on the bodies of women; women who educate their children with clenched fists.

Government data show seven out of 10 children subjected to violence by adults; 50 per cent  sexually abused.

Perhaps this ought not surprise us: the Republic of India was not forged only from non-violence.

"England" Karl Marx noted in his now-unfashionable but perceptive 1853 essay on colonial India, "has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo [sic]".

From authority structures within families to the status of women: imperialism, and capitalist modernisation shattered the basic build-blocks of India’s civic life.

India is seeing the emergence of a giant cohort of dependent elderly, at precisely the same time record numbers of undereducated young people are struggling to find work.

Demographer JP Singh has noted that even where the joint family exists, it does so "in a nominal or skeleton form".

The savage in the mirror Its We the People

Representational image. Reuters

Elsewhere in the world, societies in crisis have behaved exactly as Indians do. In May, 1916, a crowd gathered in Waco, Texas, some of it made up children on their school lunch-break. They cheered as 17 year-old, mentally-disabled Jesse Washington was castrated and his fingers cut off, before he was burned to death. Local photographers sold post-cards of the event: "This is the Barbecue we had last night," one reads, in faded brown ink.

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, noted that fascism arose in a society "where mothers educate their infant children by hitting them on the head with clogs".

He noted: "Each year several dozen workers fell in the streets; and peasants were sent to pick grapes in some places with muzzles on, for fear they might taste the fruit."

It is hard not to look into this mirror, though, and see ourselves.

Like so many other polities in the making, India is an anaemic state: it has too few police officers for its population, too few courts to administer timely justice; too few doctors and nurse and schools

For the practice of politics, the anaemia of the state has had practical consequences. Power has contracted out to community-level tyrants.

These tyrannies co-exist in a state of permanent warfare, each waging battles of attrition without end, to shore up group boundaries; to signal to the state their power; to unite followers through the ritual shedding of blood.

People committed to India's constitutional promise need, however, to do more than lament this world. The experiences of states from capitalist South Korea to communist Cuba tell us that a robust government, capable of providing education, security and health, is key to a successful transition to modernity.

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