By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly
If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden.
Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering?
I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how.
Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle. It is too easy in that it asks nothing meaningful of us.
Grief will not undo anything but something beyond grief might break the chain of tragedies that have come to dominate our lives. Grief is not the end of reckoning; it can only be the beginning of a quest to bring honor to the lives that have been lost.
Our collective outrage needs to be transformative, leading first and foremost to reflection and a dialogue with ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the nature of violence, its place in our lives, and in our society.
I worry when I see cries for vengeful action. They suggest we are not really opposed to violence, just to violence by people we don’t like. Given a chance to inflict it ourselves, we would have no qualms if we felt it was needed for the success of our cause. Every cause has its adherents and believers and therein lie the seeds of strife without end.
It seems that violence is deeply embedded in our psyches. Otherwise reasonable people have little hesitation in wanting to make examples of those they disapprove of – stringing people upside down or lining them against a wall to be shot are commonplace off-the-cuff recommendations.
This easy relationship with violence stems from our lack of regard for civil rights, a notion that seems remarkably foreign to us. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that every individual, even one accused of a crime, has, or ought to have, a modicum of civil rights. Persons accused and convicted of wrongs can only be assigned penalties commensurate with their transgressions. They cannot be made ‘horrible’ examples to deter others from committing crimes and we cannot cheer or rejoice in such spectacles.
But it seems we believe very strongly in the redemptive power of punishment and in the locus of human body as the most appropriate site for that punishment. This is quite obvious in the way we deal with women who defy patriarchal norms, in the fashion we discipline children who displease parents, in the manner we reprimand administrative staff in offices, and in how we berate servants in the home. Verbal or physical abuse is considered necessary to keep ‘them’ in their place – ‘them’ being anyone who deigns to defy our desires.
We will not be able to limit violence till we internalize the norm of individual civil rights and accept the sanctity of the human body. The other’s body is off-limits, at all times, and under all circumstances except with consent or when the law sanctions the contrary in self-defense. The temptation to punish all those we don’t like needs to be purged. That we can oppose but not eliminate is a profound lesson that remains to be learnt in our social and political lives.
We will also not be able to limit violence till we come to terms with the fact that there are no ‘others,’ that every human life is equally valuable and equally inviolate. I am saddened to recall that December 16 marks another tragedy in which the lives of students were also extinguished in just as evil a manner in a university in another part of our country. On our side, there was very little grief, not enough condemnation, and no reflection whatsoever.
Why? If our reflection can force us to honestly answer that question today, we will have taken a small step towards a less violent society.
Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on January 24, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.