The Futility of Common Sense: An Essay on Ahimsa

The Futility of Common Sense: An Essay on Ahimsa
by Dilip Simeon

(Published in Rukmini Sekhar (ed), Making a Difference: a Collection of Essays, 
Spic-Macay, New Delhi, 1998)

Upon hearing that I was to be the advisor for a documentary film on non-violence, one of my respected erstwhile teachers remarked that it was "the richest irony". He had good cause to say so. In my student days I was convinced that the only way any real social and political change could be brought about was by means of revolutionary violence. I became an activist in this cause in 1970, and after the first phase of "extremism" as it was then called, came to an end, I set aside this question as of tangential importance, not deserving of philosophical or theoretical consideration. Years later, when I was severely physically assaulted in the context of a struggle against corruption in the college where I worked, I became aware of the intense significance of this question - for this realisation at least, I am beholden to my assailants.

The Ubiquity of Violence

The most striking feature of the murder of Rajiv Gandhi was not the suicide of a young woman, but the fact that a man calmly watched the entire event, in the knowledge that it was being recorded on camera. There are now young people all over the world, for whom the sight of human flesh and blood is an ordinary experience. As a teacher, I was horrified to learn that many students had witnessed people being burnt alive in the Delhi carnage of 1984 and some had even participated in the violence. Should I have been surprised? Some members of the child murder-gangs of Colombia are not yet in their teens, and child-Mujahids were sent into battle by Iran in its war with Iraq. For Palestinian refugee children, destruction wrought by Israeli jets or warring militia are still part of everyday life, while the schoolchildren of Israel live in a perpetual climate of tension to which their government contributes as much as embittered Palestinians. Generations of black children in South Africa have known violence all their lives. Visual media have helped reduce to nil the distance that separates us from manifestations of human brutality. Violence has become part of everyday life.

Systemic violence is the lubricant of all oppressive social relations. Part of its baggage is the negation of reason, equality and respect for humanity. Violence directed at labourers and at women and children is the substratum of patriarchy and exploitation. In the months of April and May 1997, two cases of young women being murdered by their caste-panchayats have been reported from north India. Both were in their teens. They committed the "crime" of falling in love and making their own decisions about a life partner. The fact that both belonged to backward castes and that there is no hue and cry over the atrocities by the political representatives of the backward classes shows that those who portray themselves as politically progressive have scant committment to individual liberty or the human rights of women. It would seem that instances of "domestic" violence are accepted as normal, when the victims are women. The social conscience of the articulate middle-classes is far more exercised over financial matters than the loss of human life or the humilation of weak and helpless citizens.

Social relations upheld by violence are the basis of all state structures. The ubiquity of domestic violence and social degradation accustoms people to physical intimidation. This kind of "training" psychologically prepares people for violent experiences later in life, whether these arise out of paramilitary service or work in the informal sector. All over the world, armed bodies of men have trained themselves to kill for the sake of power and the subordination of others. It might seem ironic, but progressive developments such as the industrial revolution and the growth of democratic politics exacerbated this trend, with entire societies being mobilized for war. The first World War cost 20 million lives and the second 55 million. (Over 20 million in the latter figure were Russian). Today the advanced capitalist countries spend 500 billion dollars annually on the military of which a third is spent on arms purchases and development. There are about 100 million land mines scattered in 69 countries which kill or maim 500 persons every week, 26,000 every year, mostly civilians. (Manufacturing a mine costs a few dollars, de-activating one 200 to 1000 dollars). Vast resources are expended on war preparations - comparitive estimates tell us that even a 20% reduction in military budgets would bring 189 million children into school, the cost of one Seawolf nuclear submarine ($2.5 billion) would pay for an immunization program for all the world's children, and the cost of one Stealth bomber, for family planning services for 120 million women in the developing world. Despite a decline in arms trading since the end of the Cold War, arms merchants and military industries still exercise a powerful influence over governments. Social priorities in today's world can only be described as deranged.

Violence signals the end of conversation, blurs our sense of time, cause and effect and feeds upon itself. As an instrument of liberation, it has a tendency to become illusory, as the oppressed begin to speak the language of oppression. It produces a spiral of justifications for brutality, enabling its perpretators to take on the guise of victims. In the minds of those who killed Sikh citizens in 1984, their targets were not "innocent", rather, they shared the blame for the murder of Indira Gandhi and the violence indulged in by Bhindranwale. For their part the Punjab terrorists had convinced themselves that they were only responding to the victimization of their community by the Indian state. Violence also has the unique quality of legitimising itself retro-actively. Terror in the Punjab in the late 1980's seemed to justify terror in the nation's capital in 1984. (Till this day the Lok Sabha has not seen fit to pass a resolution of condolence for the thousands of persons killed in those bloodstained 72 hours). Similarly the hatred directed at Indian Muslims by a certain political tendency has tended to produce a post-facto justification for the two-nation theory of Jinnah upon which the Partition was based. In turn, that hatred appeared to those possessed by it as a consequence of the "separatism" of Muslims in general and retribution for the pain and trauma suffered by Hindu and Sikh refugees in 1947. Who is to blame? This a question fraught with ambivalence. But for those who have succumbed to communal ideology, it is a very simple question indeed, and the easy answer is always - They -.

Let us consider the prevalence of the idea of victimhood. An examination of instances of mass animosity will reveal that the sense of being victimized is central to an explanation of violence. The Nazis invented the Final Solution (ie mass extermination) in order to deal with a so-called Jewish conspiracy which they claimed had victimized the German people. Of course, the question of social oppression is a highly charged political issue. Thus, although it is generally accepted that the so-called low castes were the victims of the Brahmanical social order, upper-caste Indian society feels itself victimized by them for having obtained affirmative action in state policy. "These SC-ST's are the most privileged people in India", is a sentiment often heard in private conversations - it becomes public on occasions like the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990. Relations between Hindus and Muslims are even more complex, because of the deep-rooted conviction in Hindu society that the advent of Islam in India was accompanied by widespread manifestations of intolerance towards non-Muslims. Such perceptions are based partly on facts, but they also involve simplifications and tend to leave out memories and instances of their opposite. Howsoever we choose to look at it, the fact remains that this is a common perception. For their part, elite Muslims experienced the growth of a popular national movement as the gradual development not of democracy but of a Hindu majoritarian polity which would swamp them in due course. Each community felt itself victimized by the other and leaders marshalled arguments to prove their point. Here then, is a case of the circular logic that overtakes the dialogue of antagonistic communities.

Those of us concerned with social change must think seriously about the patriarchal and reactionary nature of violence. Why, for instance, did the militant patriot Bhagat Singh in his last days write that non-violence was a must for mass movements? Perhaps he understood instinctively that the politics of terror could only be practised (in the main) by organizations of young men, whereas democratic movements required the participation of millions of people, including women, children and the elderly, most of whom would not want to die for high ideals but live in the hope of a better future. However, non-violence is not merely a matter of tactics. Rather, it is connected to fundamental issues of the nature of power and the kind of liberation we may seek.

With God on Our Side...
Even more than the matter of physical harm, violence manifests the desire to humiliate the opponent and subjugate his or her dignity. This emotion has deadly and debilitating effects. Society will always pay a price for the humilation of any of its constituents - even if these effects take centuries to work themselves out. The relations between Armenians and Turks, African-Americans and White Americans, Black and White in South Africa, the Irish and the English, carry with them a legacy of bitterness rooted in a centuries-long history.

However, no society can be held together solely by means of force, if only because of the complete social disruption that would entail. Even the powerful require some peace in order to enjoy their power. Because of this, the products of the intellect, such as Reason, Philosophy, Religion and Art, have had a tendency to be harnessed to the needs of the State. Moreover, acts of violence always seem to need ethical justification, as if in implicit acceptance of their status as wrong-doing. Hence the persistent relation of violence to ethical issues and the development of structures of organised violence into ideological systems specialising in the alteration of moral sensibilities to produce versions of the "just war", or Dharmayuddha.

To take one example from history of the spiralling effects of violence I will draw the reader's attention to events that took place nine centuries ago. I refer to the Crusades undertaken by medieval Christianity to "liberate" Jerusalem from the suzerainty of the Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty which conquered Palestine in the middle of the eleventh century. Historical evidence suggests that the project was part of a Papal scheme to subjugate Byzantium (Byzantine was the ancient name for Constantinople, which later became Istanbul and was the centre of the flourishing Eastern Orthodox Church). Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade (1096-99 AD). His slogan "God Wills It", was a means of uniting western princes and overcoming any priestly aversion to violence. Armed with ethical authority, the crusaders convinced themselves of the need to exterminate the Turks. Their blood-lust was displayed in the five-week long seige and capture of Jerusalem, when, maddened by victory after years of travail they rushed into houses and mosques, killing men, women and children alike on July 15, 1099. The Jews were held to have assisted the Muslims and were burnt alive in their synagogue. Western sources put the number of Arabs killed at 10,000, Arab ones at 100,000. After this, Arabs began referring to the westerners (Franks) as "Christian dogs". Here is what a historian has to say:

The massacre at Jerusalem profoundly impressed all the world... (and) emptied Jerusalem of its Moslem and Jewish inhabitants. Many even of the Christians were horrified by what had been done; and amongst the Moslems, who had been ready hitherto to accept the Franks... there was henceforward a clear determination that (they) must be driven out. It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that re-created the fanaticism of Islam. When, later, wiser Latins in the East sought to find some basis on which Christian and Moslem could work together, the memory of the massacre stood always in their way.

During the Third Crusade (1191) King Richard the Lion-Hearted ordered thousands of prisoners slaughtered and their corpses burnt to search for hidden gold. "Horrified at this atrocity, the Islamic world became ineradicably suspicious of the West". The contemporary Arab poet Mosaffer Allah Werdis composed these pain-stricken lines:

We have mingled our blood and our tears
None of us remains who has strength enough to beat off these oppressors
The sight of our weapons only brings sorrow to us
who must weep while the swords of war spark off the all-consuming flames...
Oh that so much blood had to flow, that so many women were left with nothing but their bare hands to protect their modesty !
Amid the fearful clashing swords and lances, the faces of the children grow white with horror.

In contrast to the sword-blessing popes of medieval Catholicism, the Eastern Church believed that faith ought only to be propagated by spiritual means. Although Turkish pressure had pushed Byzantine Christianity towards compromise with the Latins, the behaviour of the crusading armies en route to Palestine created a gulf between the two traditions. The turning point was marked by the vandalism let loose in Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade by men whose fathers had promised to defend it from the Turks. From this time onwards, Byzantine Christians referred to the crusaders as "Frankish barbarians". Incidentally, the Persian word firingi, meaning "French, Italian or European", originated in the colloquial Arabic word franj, which carried a connotation of barbarism from the time of the crusades. Given the experiences described above this is not surprising. Thus, our own Hindustani term firangi was coloured from the start by a hateful usage steeped in the violence of the massacres of Jerusalem.

I leave it to the reader to consider whether mythic memories of these events might have any bearing on contemporary relations between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and the West, and Muslims and Christians in a part of the world that still transmits its violent tension all over the Middle East and beyond.

However, there also existed a more down-to-earth attitude among the Christian public, who began to suport pacifist movements in the aftermath of the crusades. This attitude was expressed in the writings of (for example), the French poet Rutebeuf, who had some very sensible things to say about holy war and holy places:

Am I to leave my wife and children, all my goods and inheritance, to go and conquer a foreign land which will give me nothing in return? I can worship God just as much in Paris as in Jerusalem. One doesn't have to cross the sea to get to Paradise. Those rich lords and prelates who have grabbed... all the treasures on earth may well need to go on Crusade. But I live in peace with my neighbours...  I am not bored with them yet and so I have no desire to go looking for a war... as long as (the Sultan) leaves me alone, I shall not bother my head about him. All you people... who go on pilgrimage to the Promised Land, ought to become very holy there: so how does it happen that the ones who come back are mostly bandits?... God is everywhere: to you He may only be in Jerusalem, but to me He is here in France as well.

Why do lines penned by a Frenchman seven centuries ago strike a chord in contemporary India?.. read more:

Also see:
The Broken Middle (on the 30th anniversary of 1984)
Inder Malhotra 'with Godse at the centre'
Modi wants them all: Godse and Gandhi together under BJP's 'big tent'
Gopalkrishna Gandhi: At point blank range - The killing of plural Hindustan
Apoorvanand: The retrial of Godse: Forgetting the facts

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