The jeopardy of obedience: Dictatorial regimes across history have painted dissent as sedition

by Abhishek Sikhwal

Because I’m terrible at planning holidays, my wife and I spent Christmas 2014 at the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

We were on our honeymoon and even the most rudimentary research told us that we were in for an experience that would be anything but romantic. The Cambodians don’t waste time with metaphors; when they promise you a killing field, they literally let you into a field where a lot of killing took place.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, managed to execute over two million people in the area. The targets of this elaborate tyranny were primarily professionals and intellectuals and anyone suspected of having connections with foreign or former governments. Eventually, this target group was expanded to include Christians, Buddhist monks and ethnic Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese populations.

I mention my Killing Fields experience because something about what is happening in India these days gives me the same lump in the throat. That day, as I listened to a survivor narrate the horrors of the torture camp on an audio guide, something he said really stuck with me: when the Khmer Rouge wanted to select their targets, they simply arrested people who read books or wore glasses. Intellectual curiosity and questioning the government was suddenly tantamount to sedition.

As I took in the grisly sights and the morbid information, I wondered how a country could wage war on its own citizens. Can mass hysteria galvanize people enough to hurt their former neighbours, teachers and colleagues?

The jeopardy of obedience: Dictatorial regimes across history have painted dissent as sedition

Representational image. AFP

The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram and set out to ascertain whether the Nazis were culpable for their crimes or if they were simply following orders to the point of hypnosis. The experiment featured an authority figure (‘Experimenter’) who had the subject (‘Teacher’) administer electric shocks to a fellow volunteer (‘Learner’).

Of course, the electric shocks weren’t real and the recipient Learner – who was an actor all along – faked extreme pain while complaining that he had a heart condition. However, the alarming takeaway from the experiment was how the subject blindly followed the Experimenter’s orders despite assuming that the pain he was administering was real. Prior to the experiment, each subject was given a sample electric shock of 15 volts in order to experience firsthand what the Learner would supposedly receive.

Regardless of experiencing that shock themselves, a whopping 65% of the subjects disregarded the pleas of the Learners and administered up to ‘440 volts’ simply because the Experimenter egged them on.

Milgram had two theories why the subjects followed orders despite their conscience telling them otherwise: (1) A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the hierarchy of the group and (2) Obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions.

This ghost in the machine renders humans easy to manipulate. When a mob kills a man for alleged possession of beef or strips a Tanzanian woman due to racial bias or lynches an alleged rapist because of a rumour...what we witness is a whole trying to become greater than the sum of its parts. It is reprehensible that a group of lawyers (no less) mete out punishment to those deemed ‘anti-national’ or ‘leftist’ in broad daylight while the police look on with a bovine indifference. Like Milgram’s subjects, BJP supporters are leaving decision making to their elected leaders while seeing themselves as instruments for helping these decisions take root.

Increasingly, we appear to be living in a kakistocracy much like the Cambodia of 1975 (fun fact: the Khmer empire followed Hinduism which is why Angkor Wat is the biggest Hindu temple in the world).

Every dictatorial regime across history came to power by painting dissent as sedition, protestors as anti-national and minorities as inferior. A popular quote by Hermann Goering from the Nuremberg Trials helps throw some light on the mechanics of fascism: "Naturally the common people don't want war but it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country". I hope Arnab Goswami considers this before waxing lyrical on martyred soldiers.

The constitutional rights of ordinary Indian citizens – whether a Bollywood star or single woman or Dalit or a protesting student – are being stripped away to make way for the clinquant patriotism of a violent few. To draw parallel to the Milgram experiment, the government has taken the role of the authoritative Experimenter and is urging the public to teach divisive lessons to the Learner. However, in this experiment, the shocks are real.

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Updated Date: Feb 20, 2016 11:43:08 IST