Why is South Asia So Violent?

Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi

By Anjum Altaf

A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever.

The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape every 22 minutes in India and Delhi is becoming infamous as the rape capital of the world.

What we are talking of here is not ideological or political violence but structural violence built into the patterns of everyday life – the type of violence that people in positions of political, social and moral authority have to be pushed to react to. What accounts for this structural violence in South Asia?

My explanation turns on the selection of comparators. Is South Asia today more violent than the American South at the time of the slave economy or Europe in the age of serfdom? I would argue not, leaving to the reader the burden of looking up the extent and type of social violence that was the fate of slaves and serfs, men, women and children, in those times.

If South Asia is not any more socially violent than the comparator societies I have mentioned then it must share some societal attribute with them. And, indeed, it does. That attribute is the stark inequality in the distribution of power, the existence of a deeply hierarchical social formation in which whatever laws exist are designed by the powerful to maintain their power over the powerless. Recall, that in the American South it was a crime for a slave to learn to read or write.

I grant this may be hard to concede for some but bear with me. Walk with me into any upper or upper middle class South Asian home and watch the transformation in the bearing of the lord and lady of the house. The most polite couples amongst peers at the club would interact with the domestic servants in a completely different manner. It would be as if they had not contracted with but owned the latter. Yes, they would be most kind at times, taking care of the extended family if need be, but also violent and abusive and exploitative as a matter of course and entitlement. Little master, all of fifteen years old, home on vacation from school in England, would yell at a sixty-year old orderly to shut up and get out of the house with nary a contrary word from the parents.

All this is not confined within the borders of South Asia itself. Abuse of domestic staff, sexual, physical and financial, is not unheard of in homes of South Asian diplomats and bureaucrats in the most developed capitals of the world. This structural violence stems from the sense of privilege and entitlement that accompanies growing up powerful in deeply hierarchical societies.

There is a tremendous amount of accumulated, pent up violence in such societies that manifests itself in individual incidents so numerous that they become part of the pattern of everyday life – did anyone really care how many slave women were raped every day or slave men lynched or how many young girls the lord of the manor took to bed in France?

This level of violence remains a part of life in hierarchical societies till it is squeezed out by some cathartic readjustment of power – the Civil War in America or the social revolutions in Europe, for example. Once the vertical divisions of society have been leveled by the movements for social equality, and laws are much less an instrument of the powerful for the domination of the powerless, the prevalence of structural violence is drastically diminished. Not that it disappears altogether – the Dominique Strauss Kahn’s remain as a reminder of what life must have been like in those earlier times.

There has been no such cathartic squeezing out of structural violence in South Asia – the deep hierarchical divisions just wear the façade of representative systems. South Asia is perhaps the most socially divided region in the world today and within South Asia India has to contend with divisions not just of class but also of caste.

It is no surprise that representative political systems in South Asia do as little as possible to mitigate the cruelties and injustices of structural violence. The power of the vote, diminished by the power of money, provides only slow inroads into the bastions of privilege and generates its own frustrations both for those who sense a loss and those impatient for the gains. No doubt these frustrations and the ills of consumerism have added to the incidents of social violence – the frequency of rapes in India has been increasing over the years – but the additions have built upon a very high and unremarked base level.

The road to social justice for all in South Asia is going to be long and tortured. The power of the law has to be wrested from the powerful. And many of those unaffected by the violence have to break rank by reflecting on how they may be contributing to it without actually doing any wrong themselves. There are some hopeful, albeit very partial, signs of progress from India.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.



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34 Responses to “Why is South Asia So Violent?”

  1. Nabiha Meher Says:

    I like this post and while I agree with you, doesn’t it boil back down to the fact that rape is about power? Coupled with our South Asian belief that family honour belongs to the woman’s body?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Nabiha: Yes, of course rape is about power. The point being made is that more there is unconstrained power in a society, the more violence one is likely to see. The proof of this is that it holds true even among societies that have managed to constrain the exercise of power. Search for niches where the accountability from below is missing – the Roman Catholic Church, for example – and you would see the point. These are people who have ostensibly given up their lives to the service of God. And, see how they have been protected by their superiors for decades. Coming back to our own society, the power exercised in the office is more constrained than that exercised in the home and you can see the difference in behavior of the same individual towards office and domestic staff.

      On family honor residing in the female body, yes that is a characteristic of our culture but I was trying to stay away from that dimension. I am ignoring in this discussion violence that is motivated by a conscious objective in any way. This includes violence that is motivated by a desire for revenge or punishment and proceeds via the violation of a female associated with the one to be punished. I am talking only of the violence that an individual can engage in simply because he/she can by virtue of the imbalance of power – the abuse of domestic servants again being the best example. Men abusing their spouses falls in the same category as does the harassment of women in public places by strangers.

  2. Shreekant Gupta Says:

    One couldn’t agree more. The analysis is compelling. These hierarchies also have a gender dimension which plays out in violence against women–the oppressed ‘slave’ also often turns oppresser with his wife.

  3. Vikram Says:

    This write up comes at an apt moment. I was conversing with a IIT Delhi graduate last night about the IIT rituals of ‘birthday bumps’ and fresher ragging. We were discussing how these are perhaps manifestations of sexual frustration, when 17-21 year old males are put in a closed environment with a male-female ratio of 90-10. Then my friend told me about the most grotesque manifestation of this regime of harassing freshers, it turns out that one year, second year students sodomized a couple of freshmen with Coca-Cola bottles (you can choose not to publish this part, if you feel its inappropriate). There were other extremely disgusting acts that I cant mention here. I dont think this is just sexual frustration.

    So here we have students one year older than freshmen, feeling that they are entitled to abuse them verbally, physically (this is the totally accepted norm) and indeed sexually. Incidentally, the IIT administration shielded the abusers, and the entire campus boycotted the batch of freshmen whose student complained to the police about this abuse.

    • yayaver Says:

      IIM’s & IIT’s were den of gender inequality. Slowly with more intake of girls the situation is changing. But the best and brightest minds are given virtually no education either on social justice or gender issues

  4. mazbut Says:

    Poor laws and their weaker enforcement sound like the problem, particularly in a pseudo-democratic state(s). Even in the US one out of every five women are sexually abused, Thus violence is ubiquitous but depends how you take it.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mazbut: Laws and their enforcement is itself a function of power. For example, in the American South during the slave period one would not have expected laws to protect the slaves and even if they were on the books one would not have expected them to be implemented. The primary cause is the imbalance of power. Irrespective of everything else, the imbalances have to be reduced. Violence may be ubiquitous but that doesn’t mean it has to be accepted.

  5. Gohar Azhar Says:

    The people in South Asia are not more violent.
    It is the economics of this era that is making South Asian males feel extremely frustrated.

  6. Gohar Azhar Says:

    Forced sterilizations in a number of countries in South Asia have disrupted the ratio of male:females (in some provinces of India, 9:1). Even in China, girls are given up or adoption or their is covert infanticide. The govenments by enforcing such policies and not having good oversight, just propels the century old bias in favor of males. How does one eliminate this bias?
    Restriction of sexual expression and outlets also increases violence against women in societies.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Gohar: A number of questions come to mind. First, violence against women in South Asia is not a new phenomenon. It was there even when the sex ratio was not as skewed. Second, violence has not decreased in parts of South Asia where restrictions on sexual expression and outlets have eased. Third, if the proportion of females decreases, shouldn’t their value increase as a consequence?

  7. Sakuntala Says:

    Very well written. I agree with you one hundred per cent. It is growing inequalities, and the frustration of being powerless against corrupt leaders and administrators, seeing them pocket hundreds of crores of public money, and seeing the upper middle classes get richer while the poor remain poor, that manifests itself in multiple forms, including violence (against the weak, in particular — women, the ‘lower ‘classes… Dalits…) plus the commodification of women (I have just done a piece for Vidura, the quarterly media magazine of the Press Institute of India) on this…. can send it as attachment if you are interested…

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sakuntala: South Asia was never an egalitarian society. It was probably a lot more unequal in the days of the monarchies. There was a lot of political violence in those times with rulers fighting each other. But my guess is that there was less need of social violence because the social order was not under threat. There was no need of social violence to maintain the inequalities. The situation now is quite to the contrary. There could be less inequality (there is a growing middle class) but because of the vote, the social structure is under challenge – hence the violence has increased, especially in the rural areas. Also, democracy has given rise to expectations at the bottom that didn’t exist before. It is no surprise that a good proportion of the middle class has authoritarian leanings.

      Do send your article. I fund the following brief comment by Vikas Bajpai of JNU to be quite insightful:

  8. Maryam Ahmed Says:

    A compelling read indeed. There was a panel discussion at Berkeley on this issue recently and one of the speakers mentioned how its not simply women, but very often young boys who are subject to sexual assault and abuse (she in fact quoted a report as saying more than half the children under 12 to be sexually abused in India recently have been boys)– this is somehow never reported as rape though, which is also the case with the Delhi gang rape (the victim’s male friend was also raped, but that is not highlighted or spoken of in the same terms). We see a similar pattern in Pakistani schools (especially boarding schools) where young boys are often sodomized by their seniors (sometimes as young as eleven-year-olds) ever so often. That may be one factor to keep in mind when unpacking this disturbing prevalence of sexual violence in the region, for as one of the panelists aptly put it, ‘hurt people, hurt people’.

  9. Mariam Khan Says:

    A very interesting read with multiple themes that can be explored further. I found this piece that provides a more individualistic response to the rape case: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/onefortheroad/entry/why-indian-men-rape.

    I found your observation about the feudal society and violence against servants to be something that the prevailing ruling class believes is necessary to maintain social structure, so much so that a very well to do gentleman from a highly civilized and respected family in Lahore once said and I quote verbatim, kammi ko kammi kee tarah treat karo. Inn say tameez say baat karo gay tau sir pay char jatay hain.

    As for violent societies, I actually believe that this might be some primal animal instinct that man needs to fulfill. Perhaps it stems from holding and perpetuating power and position. In the ancient civilizations, due to public displays of violence, examples of which can be seen in Roman and Greek sporting events even, the innate need for this savage behavior got satiated and it was justified given societal norms. Given modern societies, where as you rightly point out that slave societies do not exist, the big man does not feel like such a big man till he can throw his weight around. Gender specific violence and rape against children and the helpless is just one aspect of such frustration it would seem.

    As for crimes and violent acts committed by those not in apparent power, I strongly believe in children learn what they live, and society will only perpetuate behavior that it learns from so called directors. With rampant poverty, migrant workers and social and economic inequality that plagues urban hubs like Mexico, Moscow, Karachi, Mumbai, New York, Chicago and Delhi, gang and other violence against the weaker sect, gender or ethnicity is but a perverse coping mechanism. The difference between western civilizations of today and South Asia per se, would be the accountability that lies within the legal and even civic framework that ensures that fewer cases of such hideous crimes  take place and when they do, they are condemned by society and somewhat justified action is taken place to placate the victims.

    This is an issue with its roots in economic, social and intellectual depravation.  Unless institutional frameworks, both formal and informal, develop for accountability, the ruling class will have the inertial tendency to let status quo prevail.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mariam: Thanks for the link to a good op-ed. I have some qualms about the positions you have outlined. If the driver is “some primal animal instinct” then one should see the same extent of social violence everywhere. The fact that one does not means that the primal instinct, if there is one, can be moderated and controlled. Our aim is to understand what the processes are that lead to such control, i.e., what are the drivers that lead to greater accountability for gratuitous violence.

      I am not convinced that the roots of the issue are in economic and intellectual depravation. The plantation society, for example, was very affluent and the slave masters were all sophisticated gentlemen. It was the social structure that allowed the kind of violence we are talking about to take place. Only when that structure was overturned did the ingredients of accountability begin to be put in place.

  10. Anil Kala Says:

    There are two aspects of violence; one is severe graphic violence that rattles us to stand up and protest, the other is sustained low key violence like the one perpetrated on Dalits through the centuries. I think it is the sustained low key violence that is ignored by South Asians due to their rank hypocrisy. Also religion is major source of voluntary/ induced violence in our society which is largely tribal when it comes to following rituals.

  11. indiajones Says:

    The only positive thing in this article, is that we consider that violence is particularly a South Asian trait, whereby we find something at least in common among all of us, a gratifying unifying thought.
    The fact is, though, that it is not just a trait that is common to South Asia. Even if you go country by country, you would find the urge for violence endemic everywhere. Not excluding any country that may be termed “super-power”, that is still wrestling with how to enact a proper gun-control law.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      indiajones: Just to make sure there is no misinterpretation, I want to reiterate that the argument is not about South Asians as people (it is not a South Asian trait, in that sense). Rather, the (empirical) point being made is that the level of violence is much higher in South Asia compared to many other regions in the world. Why this might be so is the objective of our conversation. Some answers are suggested but these are open to revision based on the discussion.

      One may agree with your contention that the urge for violence is endemic everywhere but different societies have worked to moderate, control, or regulate that urge (or at least some dimensions of it) to different degrees. One does not even need to go from country to country – the homicide rate in the US is much higher than in Japan, for instance. You can see the differences just within India itself – ask any Bombay girl in Delhi.

      The following is from an op-ed that provides some illustrations of such differences:

      “Though many of my north Indian friends react in agonized protest when I say this, but in the end it is also a cultural and civilisational thing. In those societies that do — or have learnt to — respect women, and consider them as equal, incidence of rape, sexual harassment, molestation is very low, if not absent altogether. In Darjeeling, for instance, police stations across the district will tell you that in the last decade they have come across only a couple of cases. That, too, in one an outsider was involved. A cop I spoke to for this article remembered just a single case of “eve teasing” – in 1981.”


  12. Anil Kala Says:

    I also see the bizarre contradiction in the case of Delhi rape has been ignored. Suppose the girl had survived and the media had not picked it up, what would have happened to the girl? Most likely she would have been victimized by this very same ‘samaaj’. It is the sex that has to be demystified to reduce horrendous magnitude we heap upon crime of rape simply because victim becomes the criminal in the eyes of society for a long long time.

    Successive societies have put layers upon layers of poison on sex while West has largely succeeded in detoxifying it we are still adding more poison …

  13. Al Wakil Says:

    It is a thought provoking article. I agree with the parallels drawn between today’s South Asian society and Western societies at the time of slavery and serfdom. However, I have difficulty with the notion that societies do not change without a major revolutionary event. Revolutions have been wonderful topics for historians and scholars to study and write about, so I think their importance is played up quite a bit. Societies are dynamic and structural changes are happening all the time (from a classical Marxian point-of-view, they are constantly changing because new technologies are constantly emerging and are constantly modifying the mode of production; e.g. replacement of donkey-carts by pickup trucks may not be a revolutionary change but causes a distinct change in the societal relations). In my opinion, the divide between the powerful and the powerless is constantly blurring in South Asia. It is not as sharp as it was hundred years ago and it may well disappear in the next twenty years without a revolutionary event.

    Concerning Delhi gang rape, I tend to think that the perpetrators of a brutal crime like this must have had a dehumanized image of the like of the victim deeply ingrained in their minds for a long time. So, why ordinary youth would have a dehumanized image of a female medical student and her partner? I think it stems from the conflict between the tradition and modernity. There is a huge gulf between those who adhere to the ‘traditional values’ and those who have moved on to a modern lifestyle. When a traditionalist looks at a modern woman, whose head is not covered and whose clothes reveal her feminine figure, he immediately labels her a whore and her partner a pimp. They are seen as symbols of shame and indignity and not worthy of normal human respect. Of course, this dehumanizing alone is not enough to drive a gang of youth to rape, violence and killing. Brutally violent outbreak happens when frustrations of daily life are combined with the dehumanized image.

    The social conflict behind Delhi gang rape is ‘cultural’ in nature and a very urban phenomenon. Only in the cities, tradition and modernity live side-by-side with total misunderstanding of each other. The powerful-powerless conflict and the associated violence that you have written about is primarily a rural phenomenon in South Asia and were so in your comparator societies. Urbanization changes the social structure; frees people of the old oppressive bonds and puts them in new (and often violent) conflicts. And a lot of it is happening in South Asia.

  14. Mazbut Says:

    Slaves were held as chattel and law, even on the book, was hardly applicable to them. Still in some places forced labor is hardly protected by law and the people forcibly held in bondage or prisons are treated like those slaves of America…you referred to.

    Violence is a natural trait of humans. It has become so obvious now by looking at the frequent shooting incidences happening in the US. In my humble thinking the main reason for violence is deprivation and subsequent frustration thereof. As an analogy you find violence in a cat if it is confined in a room without any exit. She will turn violent regardless anyone she would be confronting in the room. Humans are also ‘animals’ by nature…..don’t let anyone aggrieved, try to settle the grievance and everything will be set…and violence will disappear. Injustice and lack of tolerance for different views or a was of conflicting interests gives rise to violence and we must expect it in future and always as never in history such grievances or contradictions could be settled…though suppressed they may be.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mazbut: Violence may or may not be a natural trait of humans but that misses the point of the argument. There are significant differences in the incidence of social violence across societies and we are trying to understand what might account for the differences.

  15. Mazbut Says:

    I think anger and violence are built-in human traits. This is why you find humans divided into martial and non martial races.
    Violence is an index of suppressed anger. When anger cannot be vented out people resort to violence. Anger could be genuine or fake but it casts its brunt over human mind. Anger and hence violence can be greatly reduced by

    * improving social, societal and economic norms
    * by enforcing strict law and order and imparting justice
    * by eliminating or reducing poverty and hunger
    * by devising such culture where all people have job opportunities and have access to work.
    * by imparting education compulsorily
    * settling mutual disputes or disagreements through negotiations
    * providing basic amenities to people
    * enforcing a fair system of governance which suits a country
    * eliminating corruption

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mazbut: I feel you need to rethink this proposition. If anger and violence are built-in human traits how does one account for non-martial races?

  16. Venki Says:

    The article talks about structural violence being significantly higher in South Asia than other societies, with the Delhi rape incident highlighted. Is there data to back this claim that it is significantly higher here compared to other societies? Any statistics from any reliable source to back this claim?

  17. Venki Says:


    Agreed that reporting norms are different in different places. But one has to work with existing statistics rather than anecdotal data and/or perceptions based on outrage of specific incidents like the Delhi rape case.

    The sources you provided do not show comparison between countries. The reuters article is a rating based on perception of a bunch of ‘experts’, which would not qualify by any measure as crime statistics.

    So I went to google to look for available comparison data on rape and found that India and Pakistan rank no where near the top.

    Here is data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

    Here is data from NCRB in India for cities and states. It shows very uneven rates across India with Delhi on top. This makes sense, since the cultural norms and hence the incidence (and reporting) of rapes should be uneven in a sub-continent larger and more diverse that Europe.


    For comparison here is the data for London, which beats even Delhi hollow, even if you allow 50% underreporting.

    I cannot speak for Pakistan, but the lived reality for someone from TamilNadu like me does not compute with the manufactured reality that social violence is greater here.

    Of course all this comes with the caveat that even one rape is one too many and the Delhi rape incident was a backlash by frustrated common Delhi folk over the callousness of law enforcemnt and politicians. And the high profile media coverage was indeed a teachable moment to pause and review gender norms and crime against women.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Venki: I can’t argue with the published numbers but this is a case when the statistics do not provide sufficient comfort. There are entire domains of violence in South Asia that have ceased to exist in other places on an similar scale – violence against servants, children, minorities, honor killings, dowry deaths, acid attacks, child trafficking and prostitution, extra-judicial punishments through panchayats, etc. If one were to extend the argument, malnutrition too is a slow form of violence that the powerful inflict on the powerless.

      Perhaps, one should avoid the comparative aspect. My hypothesis was that one should expect realtively more violence in an hierarchical society compared to one where social equality is more prevalent. And I agree with you that even one incident of violence is one too many.

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