Posts Tagged ‘Hierarchy’

Why is South Asia So Violent?

February 17, 2013

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.


India: A View of People

October 11, 2010

And Why It Matters

Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more.

What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.” (more…)

French Salons and South Asia

November 13, 2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.

A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:

A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. (more…)

Ghalib – 9

September 18, 2008

With reference to the politics of Pakistan we had explored the topic of impeachment in an earlier verse. This week we lean on Ghalib to talk about the new leadership.

chaltaa huuN thoRii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahiiN huuN abhii raahbar ko maiN

I go along a little way with every single swift walker
I do not yet recognize the guide

For our purpose, the interpretation of CM Naim is most appropriate:

“The world is full of false leaders. I still do not know who the real leader is. I get deceived by every appearance of rapidity and movement. Every time I see someone proceeding with rapidity I think him to be the guide and walk after him a little way. But that little experience tells me that the man is not the guide I seek. Or is it that I am restless and get quickly drawn to another rapid-mover?”

This is a charitable interpretation: I am ignorant; I believe in every smooth talker; I realize after a while I have been conned but I learn nothing from the experience; I repeat the same process with the next smooth talker; I do not know how to recognize a real leader.

Seems like a description of the Pakistani intelligentsia – Ayub Khan was so blunt and straightforward; Bhutto so charismatic; Zia ul Haq so meek and humble; Musharraf so liberal and enlightened (he even played with dogs).

And Zardari? Listen to this: “I found him charming, easygoing, unpretentious and fun to be with. At the dinner I was struck by the simplicity of his taste in food.” This is part of an op-ed in which the writer signs off with his doctorate from Oxford.

Good to know our rahbar has simple taste in food.

But let us now push a little beyond Ghalib. Is it really the case that these intelligent, literate people are unable to see through these successive smooth talkers out of ignorance? Or is it that they recognize full well the situation and understand that walking a little way along with every smooth talker is to their advantage?

Should we give them the benefit of intelligence? If so, it will shed a different light on our society and culture. We have remarked in a number of earlier posts that we have a monarchical and hierarchical culture in South Asia masquerading as a democracy. An essential characteristic of a darbari culture is sycophancy. At the level of the common man, the phenomenon of lotas is well recognized.

In a hierarchical society where merit does not count for much the goodwill of the monarch is all-important, especially for those who have little merit to start with. And from this follows the importance of fulsome but hypocritical praise.

Sir, your taste in food is so simple!

Are we being too harsh?

See the parallel post on this verse at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

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Monarchy, Religion, Hierarchy and Modernity

January 27, 2008

The thing I like about a blog is that you can tap into individuals who can say things a whole let better than you can yourself. Here is a contribution from a reader, questioning our positions on monarchy and religion, that we can just lean back and admire. 

1. Monarchy and dynastic rule imply accepting hierarchy between human beings at a fundamental level. I think it would be wrong to assume that this hierarchy would be confined just to the relation between monarch and subject. It would have to presuppose the widespread prevalence of hierarchy between husband and wife, parents and children, among friends, at work, and in more diffuse social networks. What the Enlightenment did was to make all people fundamentally equal, whatever their attributes. By accepting monarchy and dynastic rule, I think one is ultimately accepting the continuance of such hierarchies that are morally highly questionable if not repugnant. I realize that the social psychology of many people in rural and urban areas is hierarchically oriented but this is the very thing that needs to change. I do not mean by this that individualism is the only alternative, just equality. In a democracy, political officials *represent* or stand in for their people in a particular role and are equal to them in fundamental ways.

2. The case of religion is a little more complex and depends on the nature of the religious views in question. Again, if the only way for a person to interact with God is through a priestly class, then we are back to hierarchy. I believe the Catholic faith is like this. The Protestant Reformation via Martin Luther allowed man to have a direct and personal relationship with God. This is a little better, though even this relationship is ultimately one based on hierarchy. The great advance of Humanism was precisely that it put human beings at the center of the universe.

3. Finally, one may ask: what is wrong with hierarchy itself? At a certain level and in limited spheres (e.g. a team effort with a leader like a cricket team with a captain) it may be harmless, but when it informs the very essence of social life, then given certain assumptions about human nature, it can be very harmful to the full growth and experience of the creative and productive and other powers of man that help him to reach a higher level of fulfillment. It also inhibits friendship, perhaps the most undervalued of relational forms in the modern world, as well as other such forms. 

4. Is there a way that avoids both hierarchy (and all its sociopolitical forms) on the one hand and Humanism and the Enlightenment on the other or do they exhaust the space? I do not know. But the way in which the latter can be realized can vary greatly from region to region. 

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