Non-violent state and not-so-non-violent society

The fact is that tolerance to violence is thinly separated from its actual commission

Perhaps all societies have internal contradictions; perhaps human beings themselves have contradictory steaks in them. I do not know that for sure yet, but I do know that there are a lot of internal contradictions within our society, the Indian society. For one, we have a self-proclaimed non-violent state, which has consistently maintained a defensive posture towards the international system, and yet the state of non-violence inside the state is not very laudable. Two recent instances triggered me to reflect on this issue in a more self-critical manner: India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which I justified in my column last week, and the controversial child custody case in Norway involving an Indian family.

The non-violent state
India is a self-proclaimed non-violent and defensive country. It has been averse to the use of aggression against other states – both now and historically. Our conventional as well as nuclear weapons are guided by defensive intentions, doctrines and postures. Modern India has never, with the honorable exception of 1971, projected force outside its territorial boundaries even when it had clear incentives, reasons and international encouragement to do so. Indeed, India even refused to use force against a particular neighboring country even when aggressively provoked by it, time and again.
The Indian state has also historically condemned all acts of aggression against small powers by big ones in the international system. India is convinced that imperialism and colonialism are bad ideas and has been consistent in its disapproval of them. We are also against any form of discrimination in the international system and we have always spoken up against human rights violations elsewhere. That said, there is a clear domestic-international divide in our discourse on non-violence.

The blinders of our mind and domestic violence
We are very upset about the violation of Tamil people’s human rights in Sri Lanka and hence voted against Colombo in UNHRC, and yet we did almost nothing when over 100 people were killed in Kashmir by our own security forces. Some people did react, but I would call that a much toned-down reaction for it was much less in intensity in comparison to how we have reacted to what happened in, say, Sudan, Egypt or Somalia. We look the other way when the Indian state wages a war against the Maoist-infested central Indian jungles even though we know that one of the major reasons why a lot of tribals there take to arms is because the state has provided them with nothing but many forms of structural violence. We are often tolerant towards custody killings, police brutality and often ask for public – extra-judicial – hangings/punishment of criminals without a trial forgetting that societies cannot wish away their responsibility in creating the social environment in which a crime gets committed.
How many of us are aware of the dehumanizing living and psychological conditions inside our prisons that often house more under-trials than convicts? Many of us believe that it is ok for ‘criminals’ to be treated like that for they are criminals after all, aren’t they? I often remind myself of what Dostoevsky once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.
The fact is that tolerance to violence is thinly separated from its actual commission. The state of non-violence within us and in our society is appalling and yet we preach to the international community on the need to avoid violence. We voted against Colombo: what would be the reaction of our society – forget the state – if some country were to table a resolution in UNHRC against New Delhi on human rights violations in Kashmir?
We do have an image problem. We just don’t like anyone telling us that we are wrong. We sit in judgment of the US about the condition of prisons in Guantanamo bay (apart from its legality etc.). What if they were to tell us improve your prisons first!
The castes of our mind and the double-talk on discrimination
We talked about nuclear apartheid that the west was practicing against us for a long time. However, today the West accepts India as part of the global non-proliferation regime and so we don’t invoke the term ‘nuclear apartheid’ when the West metes out the same treatment to Iran. Isn’t the age-old caste system – widely prevalent in the Hindu society and even in the Muslim and Christian societies even though in smaller measure – the most abhorrent kind of structural violence existing in the contemporary Indian society? We know that and yet we still proudly flaunt our caste (or hide them with shame)!
There are also other castes of mind that are in operation in our societies. We still live bounded by our “dear” feudal social structures even in the most modern of our cities. We talk about the need to pump in more and more resources into our IITs and IIMs to make them more and more world-class but hardly anyone is talking about the poor Sarkari schools. Our castes of mind are stronger than we think they are!

The non-self-reflective moral outrage
When the Norwegian child protection authorities recently took away two children from their Indian parents alleging that they were not being well-looked after by their parents, the high and mightly in New Delhi got involved with the case and the Indian media and civil society seethed with anger. They cried foul and even accused the Norwegian government of racial discrimination.
I wish our politicians, officials, media, page-three celebrities and civil societies give our children at least a fraction of the focus they gave to the two “Indian” children in Norway. If only we spent some more resources to take care of our children begging in the streets, if only we gave proper education and shelter to our child labourers, if only we showed more outrage when we see the millions of uncared for children in our midst!
What is even sadder is that we even go to the extent of justifying child labour saying, “if these children work they can at least find something to eat and get a place to sleep”. How many of us have young children working in our own homes? I think it is a ridiculous and hypocritical argument to say that by letting children work we are doing them a favour. The fact is that we must force our governments to spend more resources on taking care of these children rather than sending diplomats to Oslo to take care of the ‘Indian’ children there or buying more and more weapons every year.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi).

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