By Anjum Altaf
Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon.
The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples.
It follows immediately from this perspective that the violence under consideration is an outcome of the failure of finding peaceful ways of resolving political and ideological differences. And this brings up immediately a consideration of the institutional mechanisms that can yield non-violent resolutions, i.e., to a consideration of what might be the critical differences between the body politics of France and South Asian countries.
We know full well that under monarchies the king was the sole source of authority and power was exercised at his bidding, arbitrarily and without accountability. Violent suppression of dissent and opposition was the only effective instrument of conflict resolution. Examples are so numerous that they do not need reiteration though one may refer to the conflict between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh as a particularly poignant illustration from South Asia.
Equally clearly, we know that the world has moved on and that, at least as far as appearances are concerned, there has been a transition to an age characterized by notions of social contract, citizenship and civil rights. We are not supposed any more to resolve political conflicts the way they were under monarchies.
Here we come face to face with the critical disconnect between appearance and reality, with what distinguishes the South Asian body politics from that of France. What we are talking about when we refer to the notions of social contract, citizenship and rights is the institutional form of democracy but as we have argued many times on this site, we need to be more discerning in assessing the realities of various types of democracies. The question we have asked repeatedly is whether the spirit of monarchy can masquerade under the form of democracy?
In a recent article, Andre Beteille has articulated this argument very well. First, he reiterates that “disaffection, dissent and opposition are features of social and political life in all parts of the world and at all times. But they find different outlets and expressions in different societies.” Then he gets to the essence of a functioning democracy: “what is distinctive of a democratic regime is that there is an acknowledged place in it for an opposition as well as a government. Hence an alternative route to the understanding of a democracy may be through an enquiry about the opposition: its form of organization, its legitimacy and its effectiveness.” (In order to get a sense of what is at stake, think of the attitude to oppositions posed by the Baloch in Pakistan, the Maoists in India and Nepal, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Islamists in Bangladesh.)
And then Professor Beteille gets to the heart of the argument:
Democracy, thus, requires a set of institutions through which its ideals and aspirations can be expressed and made to bear fruit. The institutions of democracy are many and diverse and they do not remain fixed for ever but evolve over time. The course of their evolution cannot be the same for all nations if only because each nation has its own distinctive social order. Democracy changes that social order to some extent but it is also changed by it. The institutions of democracy cannot be the same for all nations because the social institutions with which they become intertwined vary enormously from one another.
The political institutions of democracy are shaped also by the historical conditions of their origin and by the history of the nation’s interaction with other nations. In both India and the United States (US) – unlike in England or France – democracy grew in response to the challenge of colonial rule, but the responses were not the same in the two cases. America was a new nation characterized by social conditions that were very different from the social conditions prevalent since time immemorial in India.
The inference is obvious and vital: when we talk of democracy we talk of the superstructure of governance but what really gives each democracy its distinctive characteristics are the underlying social order and the conditions in which democracy was introduced into the body politic. This is where we go beyond the typical answers to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Yes, France is more developed, a more mature democracy, but what does that really imply and how does it explain its internal pacification and control of violence?
We have mentioned in earlier posts that in South Asia, where there have been no social levelings through revolutions, we are still dealing with very hierarchical social orders. We are also dealing with the post-colonial legacy of democracies that had no organic evolution in the region. Some of the comments we have reproduced in earlier posts drive home this point:
Most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness. (Sunil Khilnani)
The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about… It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics. (Pratap Bhanu Mehta)
On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up. (B.R. Ambedkar)
It is clear from this that the clues to political and ideological violence, the attitude towards dissent, and the nature of conflict resolution in South Asian countries are to be found in the specificities of post-colonial forms of governance and even more in the social orders on which those forms were superimposed.
The most lucid exposition of this perspective I have come across is by Teresa Caldeira, an anthropologist, in her book on crime, segregation, and politics in Sao Paulo. The power of her analysis stems from its movement from the specific to the abstract:
First, I seek to understand the character of Brazilian democratic citizenship and the role violence plays in it. Second, I want to make this understanding talk back to theories of citizenship and rights… I build this analysis as a dialogue with theories of rights and violence, a dialogue whose expected result is not only to illuminate Sao Paulo’s experience but also to problematize notions of citizenship and democracy.
Here, Caldeira is pointing to the same critical understanding that was highlighted by Andre Beteille:
Because these notions are formulated on the basis of a specific Western European or American experience, to apply them directly to a country like Brazil results only in seeing it as a failed or incomplete modernity. Rather than consider only one model of citizenship, democracy, or modernity, I suggest that different societies have diverse ways of engaging the elements generally available in a common repertoire of modernity to create their specific nations, citizenries, and democracies.
Caldeira introduces here the very useful notion of ‘disjunctive democracy’ arguing that scholars of “the history of the countries that invented the liberal-democratic model (France, England, and the United States)… have tended to generalize the history so that it becomes the history of the development of rights and discipline in general and the model of what citizenship and democracy should look like.”
One of the effects of this generalization is to link certain elements as if they always occur together and in a certain sequence. Countries such as Brazil, but also others with different histories (usually colonial histories) and that today have disjunctive democracies force us to dissociate the elements of that history and to question their sequence. They force us to see the possibility of political citizenship without the control of violence, of a rule of law coexisting with police abuses, and of electoral democracies without civil rights or a legitimate justice system… Looking at these histories, we realize that what we think of as the norm – the European history of the control of violence and development of citizenship rights – is only one version of modernity, and probably not even the most common one. When we look at other histories we realize that multiple modernities are produced as different nations and peoples engage with various elements of the repertoire of modernity (monopoly of the use of force, citizenship, liberalism and so on).
Caldeira refers to the classic essay by Marshall on the development of citizenship in England:
His starting point is the recognition that citizenship rights have never been equally distributed but have expanded considerably over time. After distinguishing the civil, political and social dimensions of citizenship, Marshall argues that they evolved in succession, and that each took around one century to consolidate.
She then explains that “the peculiarity of the Brazilian engagement comes from the fact that social rights (and secondarily political rights) are historically far more legitimated than individual and civil rights, and that violence and interventions in the body are broadly tolerated.”
Marshall’s thesis on the sequential development of citizenship rights (explicated here by Mitchell Cohen with reference to the present) is itself embedded in the specificities of the emergence of capitalism in Europe with its imperatives to protect privacy (of property) and to promote individualism (to make labor a freely tradable commodity). The unintended outcome of these imperatives was the concession of civil rights extending the sanctity of property to the body of the worker, his or her primary asset. This concession of the equality of all bodies, in turn, led to a demand for political rights, an equal say in the election of political representatives. And the need to protect the capitalist system from the pressures for redistribution from below generated by civil and political rights led to the progressive yielding of socioeconomic rights. [For an excellent summary of the transformations in Europe in the 17th Century, read the first part of this essay by Ian Johnson.]
We come back to South Asia after this very long digression hopefully convinced that both the nature of the social order that acts on democracy and is itself acted on by the latter and the conditions in which democracy is superimposed on this order have much to do to explain what happens under that system of governance.
So what is it in the South Asian social order that generates violence and tolerates its infliction? Having skipped all the steps that preceded the emergence of capitalism, individualism and liberalism in Europe, the South Asian social order is still a hangover of a monarchical system with its typical mechanisms of conflict resolution.
To explain the prevalence of violence and its acceptance in the Brazilian body politic, Caldeira employs another evocative expression for what she terms the ‘unbounded body’ which is “unprotected by individual rights and, indeed, results historically from their absence… the naturalness with which Brazilians view infliction of pain as a corrective is consistent with other perceptions of the body. Interventions and manipulations of other people’s bodies, or one’s own body, are seen as relatively natural in many areas of social life.”
We can illustrate this notion of the unbounded body, the tolerance for, and indeed the advocacy of violence, with many examples from South Asia. Many social scientists have remarked on the soft authoritarian predilections of the rising middle class impatient with the compromises of democracy. How many times has one heard from ‘liberals’ that the South Asian masses are not ready for democracy and understand only the ‘rule of the stick’; that nationalists and dissenters should be dealt with ‘without mercy’ (recall Musharraf’s threat to the Baloch); that all corrupt politicians should be ‘lined up against the wall and shot’ or ‘hung upside down from the trees’; and that criminals need to be ‘taught an exemplary lesson.’ The contradictions of these desires, to violate the citizenship rights of those one disagrees with or does not like, do not resonate at all as incongruous with the professions of liberalism. The road to a better world is uncritically accepted as a violent one by liberals and conservatives alike.
In South Asia, as in Brazil, “the body is conceived of as the locus of punishment, justice, and example… It is conceived by most as a proper site for authority to be asserted through the infliction of pain. On the bodies of the dominated… those in authority mark their power, seeking through the infliction of pain, to purify the souls of their victims, correct their characters, improve their behavior, and produce compliance.”
And these conceptions and their consequences are “accepted as natural in everyday life” by citizens because of the broad social tolerance for punishment as a corrective and acceptance of the unbounded body as the appropriate locus of that punishment.
It is the end of this particular intellectual journey – “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It is up to us to recognize this imperative of our feudal-monarchical social order, to confront our natural tendency to conform to its dictates, and to resolve that the greatest need of the times is to accord sanctity to the individual rights of all citizens irrespective of our political and ideological differences. The body needs to be bound and understood to be off-limits to our passions. In the absence of supporting social processes, this has to be a struggle of the intellect. This, indeed, is our great jihad.
Altaf, Anjum (2013). Why is South Asia So Violent? The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/why-is-south-asia-so-violent/
Ambedkar, BR (1949). Speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly. Accessed at http://indialawyers.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/speech-of-bharat-ratna-dr-bhim-rao-ambedkar-detailing-the-accomplishments-of-the-constiuent-assembly-of-india/
Beteille, Andre (2013). The Varieties of Democracy. Economic and Political Weekly, 48:8, pp. 33-40.
Caldeira, Teresa PR ( 2000). City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cohen, Mitchell (2010). T.H. Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class.” Dissent Magazine, Fall. Accessed at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/t-h-marshalls-citizenship-and-social-class
Johnson, Ian (1999). On Hobbes’ Leviathan. Accessed at http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/introser/hobbes.htm
Khilnani, Sunil (1997). The Idea of India. Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London.
Mehta, Pratap Bhanu (2003). The Burden of Democracy. Penguin Books, India.
Marshall, TH [1965 (1949)]. “Citizenship and Social Class.” In Class, Citizenship, and Social Development. Doubleday: New York. Accessed at http://delong.typepad.com/marshall-citizenship-and-social-class.pdf
Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.