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Violence in the Land of Non-violence

Indian civilisation is supposed to epitomise non-violence. Says who? The evidence speaks to the contrary. By Bernard Imhasly

On January 24, 2005, the MP Paritala Ravi was shot by several men as he was leaving party headquarters in Anantapur, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. As the riots which followed showed – 30 state buses were set on fire by demonstrators, 576 were smashed – this was more than just a minor news item, more than a minor settling of political accounts. The murder drew wide public attention to the region; even in its heyday, the Sicilian mafia couldn't have competed with this. Surya Narayanan Reddy, the main suspect, organised the murder by mobile telephone from jail in the state capital of Hyderabad. He is serving a life sentence for an assassination attempt against Ravi in 1993 in which Ravi survived but 26 others did not. At the time, Ravi was making a film about his father, who is said to have been hacked to death by Reddy's father.

Ravi himself was no innocent lamb. In addition to the vengeance murder of Reddy's father, he had 53 charges of murder and aiding and abetting murder on his conscience. Both clans come from the region of Rayalaseema, in which enemy factions have been waging war against each other for generations. In the Anantapur district, there are rumoured to be 72 criminal clans feeding on atavistic loyalties and the social misery resulting from caste and feudal structures. The fact that today's head of government belongs to one of these clans – the setting on fire of buses was a protest against him– shows that these tribal demarcations have been carried over into modern institutions such as political parties.

The endemic violence is not unique to Rayalaseema. Political murders, clan wars between landowners and the landless, mob justice in villages against young people who forge liaisons across caste lines, religiously-motivated political riots like the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 - all this is part of everyday life in India, not to mention the structural violence of hunger. Nonetheless, the notion that Indians have an inborn aversion to violence is one of the most enduring myths about the country. No doubt there are good reasons for that. In contrast to the secular West, a deep piety permeates everyday village life, even though it is often highly ritualised. A wide variety of religious convictions find expression in a sea of gods and legends. Hinduism has never unified these practices in one doctrine and alongside the mono- and polytheistic images of god, there are schools of thought which reject all images of god, prompting the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen to claim that "the most comprehensive agnostic and atheistic literature in the world is written in Sanskrit". This has forced Hindus to practise tolerance towards other forms of belief, furthering an even more colourful mix of religious practices.

Indologists like to extrapolate the peaceableness of the Hindus from a (often slightly orientalist) reading of philosophical texts. In these, human existence is understood as "Maya" – illusion - which is teleologically oriented to a being at one with the divine cosmos, purified through Karma and reincarnation. The topos of the contemplative Hindu way of living is still sufficiently alive that even Indians believe in it and promote this image abroad, in tourist advertising for example. Meanwhile, the Hindus know among themselves that the traditional goals of life comprise not only dharma (religious duty) and moksha (ultimate release from transmigration into the universal spirit of "Brahman"), but also artha (power/fame/wealth) and kama (physical or emotional pleasure). Above all, they know from their daily worship of the gods of desire and money, shrewdness and success, that kama, artha, dharma and moksha cannot be projected onto a linear progression that corresponds to the stages in life, bur rather should be constantly reflected and interwoven in the individual biography. Another fundamental aspect of Hindu philosophy deals with the problem of violence. The conflict of good and evil is not one between the divine principle of good and God-denying evil, as is the case in Christianity.

In his commentaries on "Bhagavad Gita" at the beginning of the 20th century, Aurobindo Ghose said: "Few religions have the courage of the Indian religion, which states outright that the enigmatic universal force [of creation and destruction] represents one godhead. The world's elementary power is manifest in the form of both the benevolent goddess Durga and the fearsome Kali with her bloodthirsty dance of destruction. The message: "This too is the mother; this too is God; worship this too, if you have the strength." For Aurobindo the commitment to the recognition of evil is also a commitment to the truth and this is the "basis of true spirituality."

"Truth is my religion" was also Mahatma Gandhi's message and it is no coincidence that he contributed to the image of Indian non-violence like no other. His philosophy of "Satyagraha" the "power of truth" was not a pacifist crusade aimed at toppling the British colonial power with political means. For him the struggle for independence could only remain non-violent if it was accompanied by an inner transformation that involved feeling love for the individual opponent while fighting his role. The "truth" or legitimacy of the struggle for independence was no axiomatic given; it (as "the way to the truth") had to be continually questioned and fought for. When Gandhi felt that his followers were deviating and turning to violence against people and objects, he broke off the campaign. He engaged in year-long periods of purification before starting again anew.

Gandhi was no pacifist, but rather a profound admirer of the Sermon on the Mount and the "Bhagavad Gita", in which the protagonist Arjuna wants to withdraw from battle because he realises that war turns every humanitarian impulse into blood-lust. Krishna convinces him that war is just if it serves to defend "dharma", the moral harmony of world order. In countering Arjuna's objection that even a just war leads to human perversion – violence against the innocent, deceitfulness, hatred – Krishna came up with the famous solution of the "selfless struggle", which finds fulfilment in the exercising of duty, not in the satisfaction of the Ego.

Sri Aurobindo
saw the possibility of attaining this goal in the warrior Arjuna. Like the ideal image of the Samurai or the medieval ideal of the knight, the member of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste follows a ritualised behavioural code, designed to prevent the act of killing from degenerating into a murderous frenzy. Gandhi was successful in bringing the world's greatest power to its knees with his campaign of non-violence in 1947. But the moment of greatest victory was also his greatest defeat. The birth of the new nation went hand in hand with a violent schism which cost over a million lives. And because he was unable to prevent the creation of Pakistan, Gandhi suffered a violent death at the hands of the Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse. These two countries have never recovered from the trauma of their birth. Secession has had its repercussions: numerous wars and regular eruptions of violence between India's Hindus and Muslims.

As the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar demonstrated, the tendency towards violence was also, paradoxically, the result of decades of federal policy that considered the subject taboo and did not tolerate mourning, fearing that this would only deepen the divide. It is only in the last years that writers and film-makers have begun to wrest the repressed experiences of murder and death back into public view.

Reports like those by Urvashi Butalia and the shock caused by the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat have gradually provoked the public to summon up its courage and face other atrocities such as the killings that followed the murder of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards in 1984. 3000 Sikhs were murdered at the time in Delhi, but to this day, not one of the ringleaders has been convicted. In Shonali Bose's recent film "Amu", the eponymous young protagonist discovers, on returning from the USA, that her real mother was not a poor village woman who died from malaria but rather the victim of a fanatical Hindu mob in Delhi. Her adopted mother, like her circle of intellectual friends, NGO activists and government functionaries, has hidden the truth from her – ostensibly to protect her, but in fact to avoid having to face the events of 1984 (and her own inaction).

The omnipresence of violence is gradually pushing the country to start to critically address its image of itself as a non-violent nation. In his book "Being Indian" (here a review in The Independent), the diplomat Pavan Varma even dares to challenge the iconographic Gandhi and his idea of non-violence. Varma points out that alongside the "Bhagavad Gita" and the "Vedas", there are also texts such as the "Arthashastra" from the 1st century B.C. In this breviary of princes, Kautilya, an Indian Machiavelli, shows how to gain and exercise power. In his eyes, unsentimental pragmatism is far more important than conventional morality. The "Arthashastra" states: "It is power and only power which sustains this world and the next."

Varma also provides an unsentimental interpretation of the sublime "Bhagavad Gita". He states in "Being Indian" that Krishna justifies all means - including un-chivalrous calculated lies and perfidy – to preserve dharma. According to Varma, Gandhi failed because his principle that the means are as important as the end "is completely foreign to Indian tradition". The author sees the Law of Dharma as a highly flexible moral yardstick; similar sentiments are expressed by theologian Othmar Gächter in his essay on "Violence in Hinduism". One the one hand, Dharma assembles universally valid behavioural norms such as courage, purity of thought, honesty, non-violence, truthfulness and humility. It also establishes an order, and represents the basic conditions for social function and individual interpretation. On the other hand, it sanctions "the use of violence to maintain this order". And part of this order involves maintaining the caste system and the rejection of "un-Dharmic" religions such as Islam. Islam's alleged intolerance towards other forms of belief is held to be a threat to the Hindu practice of tolerance. It must therefore be fought against even if what is being fought for – tolerance – is sabotaged. When asked about his hatred of Muslims, the brother of Ghandhi's murderer Godse replied, "We cannot tolerate intolerance".

There is no universal moral law in Indian philosophy that has hierarchical and logical authority over all others. The form of Dharma applied - that of the individual, the caste, the state, or the universe - depends on the context. Wrongdoings are never unconditionally wrong, because in karmic terms they set in motion a process of purification which works its way out through repeated incarnations. In his book on Bombay, "Maximum City", the author Suketu Mehta portrays with merciless precision how Dharma nurtures violence in the city. The police use methods of torture to maintain "justice and order". The killers of the Shiv Sena party can be viewed in the same light; they openly advocate the violent expulsion of immigrants, see themselves as the protectors of slum dwellers. The Muslim blackmail gangs present themselves as defenders of a beleaguered minority. They all consider themselves to be part of a "Dharma", even when they kill and torture most un-Dharmically. Amol, one of the slumlords of the Sena, replies to Mehta's question of how a person brings himself to kill: "You are a writer. When you've had a drink you will say: 'Now I have to write a story.' If you are a dancer, you will feel like dancing after a drink. If you are a killer, you have a drink and think: 'Now I have to kill someone.' That's your job. It's in your nature."

But one should not be tempted to construe some apocalyptic vision from this form of conflict resolution. Gandhi's achievement alone makes this clear; he who, in the words of Romain Rolland, succeeded in "mobilising 300 million people to revolt and shook the foundations of the British Empire". More astounding was that this movement remained largely non-violent for decades "and brought a religious impetus into human politicisation on a scale that the world had not experienced for 200 years." The poet and essayist Nirmal Verma connects this achievement with India's unique absence of collective national aggression in its dealings with other nations. India has never gone beyond its own natural borders as a conquering power.

Nonetheless, Indian civilisation was able to "expand across wide stretches of Asia without resorting to war or any form of military aggression," writes Verma in his essay "India and Europe". At the same time, the country was conquered countless times. But despite the lack of both aggressive and defensive projections of power, India's civilising stability has remain undisturbed, while much stronger military cultures in Asia and Latin America have perished.

This also undoubtedly applies to modern India. Apart from the trauma of division, the warnings that a country with India's level of diversity would never survive independence have not borne out. None of the countless secession movements have caught on. There may have been some violent fighting at the beginning, but this was followed by toleration and ultimately assimilation. Former terrorists now sit in parliament and take oaths on the constitution. The commonly expressed, if peculiar, acceptance of a right to violence should be viewed in the context of the tolerance and passivity that is shown to others; outsiders are not fought but accommodated, taken on board. Violence is the reverse side of Gandhi's strategy of non-violence: a successful recasting of passive resistance as the "weapon of the weak". Both draw their healing or destructive power from this polarity.


This article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 25 April 2005.

Dr. Bernard Imhasly is the South Asia correspondent for the NZZ. He has been covering India for more than twenty years for various newspapers including The Hindustan Times, The Handelsblatt and the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad.

Translation: nb, lp - let's talk european