“An anomic, anarchic, free-floating violence... is looking for targets”

Eminent social commentator Ashis Nandy on a society in a flux, the gangrape and its aftermath


adity Srivastava | January 5, 2013

India’s preeminent intellectual and commentator Ashis Nandy
Photo: Arun Kumar

Delhi has been infamous as the rape capital of India as well as the crime capital of India. It is not new to failure of governance either. Yet, a gangrape in December was a trigger point, people were enraged and came out in streets to protest like never before. The crime and the response both call for a deeper understanding beyond headlines. We need to come to terms with whatever is happening deep down in our collective psyche that throws up the rapist as well as the demand to hang him in public. To understand our society in a flux, we turned to Ashis Nandy, India’s preeminent intellectual and commentator. Edited excerpts from Nandy’s interview with Shivangi Narayan and Adity Srivastava:

We would like to discuss with you the recent gruesome incident of a gangrape in Delhi.
This kind of growth in violence may turn out to be a long-term trend. You cannot handle this kind of violence only by expanding the police force, because often this kind of violence may turn out to be unpredictable, anomic [referring to social instability due to erosion of values] and anarchic. This is an important part of the story. It is not ordinary violence that is increasing, but a more anarchic form of violence, a more anomic one. By this I mean that the violence is often pointless. The violence is an end in itself.

These people could have raped the girl and gone away, beaten her up; but this is gruesome...they pushed her to the verge of death.

So it was much beyond a sexual crime.
Absolutely. This is the crime I am talking about which is absolutely pointless, an end in itself. Actually violence is there. It is a kind of a free-floating violence. It is looking for targets.

Does it show the aggressive male psyche in our society?
Yes, but it is so much more. You have to look at the protest slogans at the India Gate to understand that the women are no less aggressive. Women are no less violent. This is a free-floating violence, which is what I also said earlier. It says something deeply disturbing about the society, particularly modern urban semi-educated India. The slogans say things like “Not only hang them but torture and then hang them”. They also ask to hang the culprits in public, making a public spectacle out of it. People will come to applaud the hanging. That is the kind of attitude of the people.

One person said, “Throw them first in boiling oil, that’s how you should kill them”. It tells you something about the atmosphere of violence. They come from exactly the same culture of violence as the criminals. I make no distinctions, only the culpability is not there, but they come from the same culture of violence and are contributing to it.

What reasons would you attribute to this violence?
I think this is because our traditional and moral norms are collapsing; the old ones have collapsed and the new ones have not taken their place and we are in a stage of transition. A crisis of a deep kind. And I do not look forward to the future with much confidence in the sense that I do not see an easy and early end to it. There is no magical cure of this kind of violence. It is very much like the American style of violence that you saw just a few days back in the mass shooting incident. The young boy of 20 first kills his own mother, then takes her arms (assault rifles and things like that) goes to a school and kills 27 kids and, before the police come, kills himself. We do not even know why.

Hence rapes today have nothing to do with the reasons traditionally attached to this crime.
Yes, this rape is a good instance and that is why I am saying that it is a disturbing kind of incident. It is not only rape but there is a gratuitous violence associated with it which is disturbing.

Do you also think the urban facelessness of the people is responsible for these crimes?
Very much, very much. I do recognise that. The communities are breaking down, relationships are breaking down. It is an anonymous city, individualistic city. It is the urban life which is first. These have been the problems with urbanity always but we are getting the worst of it because many people, a large section of our urban population, are first-generation urban dwellers. They are not accustomed to urban conventions, urban ethics. They are still ignorant to these conventions and ethics and are still learning. Their children may be better versed with them; their grandchildren will probably learn them. At the moment, however, we are at a dangerous phase. A community-centred civilisation is being pummelled into urban and individual life at a very fast pace. That change in many countries has taken centuries which is not the case here. If you push these processes too quickly, these things are bound to happen.

What is then the difference between a rape in a city and one in a village?
Rape in a rural society is often an affirmation of the social status. It is an attempt to humiliate. Rape does not take place when the hierarchies of the rural society are intact but when they are breaking down. When the higher order finds that the lower order – so to speak the dalits, the adivasis, whom they previously took for granted – is now becoming rebellious and demanding their rights. So rape is often a way of reaffirming that hierarchy that looks to be breaking down.

However, caste violence is not the kind of violence that you see here [in the city]. It is the anonymity of the city. It is different here; they did not know her caste, they did not know where she came from. She was just an unknown woman. Any woman, and their almost primitive instincts came out.

Was there an affirmation of the power status of the man?
That kind of misogyny has come out, but that often comes out from some kind of impotence – the more you feel that you do not have any control over your life, the more you take out from others. It is part of that violence: it can be rape, it can be killing.

What do you have to say about widespread protests in the aftermath of the gangrape?
The urban culture of Delhi has a place for rape but not the meaninglessness associated to it. Rapes are very common here. Delhi is part of a regional culture where rape is not uncommon or unknown. From west UP, all the way through Delhi, Haryana and up to Punjab it is the ultimate rape territory of India. But many of these rapes take place as an affirmation of social status as I have talked about before. The women from dalits, adivasis and economically weak sections are most vulnerable to this crime because they are getting more powerful through the democratic process.

This area also has these urban pockets which were traditionally not very urbanised – Delhi has gone from a city of 20 lakh in the mid-60s to 1.25 crore – and in this entire area there are these other kinds of rapes too in which this floating population seeks its meaning of life in violence.

The outrage is because the middle class is now fearful of what may happen. They feel that their family and they themselves are targets to this violence. There are also agitated because the incident was random. There was no quarrel between the two sides, they did not even know each other. It was an anonymous crime – anonymous violence on anonymous person by anonymous person. This is a different kind of violence.

Does the fact that people are not afraid of the law contribute to the crime?
This kind of violence does not go by that kind of fear. Many of the people in the movement demanding justice, those who are standing at the India Gate, do not understand this part of the story. They do not understand that there is a patch of desperation in the people which does not care about the law. Once a person stabbed a panwalla, whom he knew very well and from whom he had been buying paan for years, for increasing the price of the pan by 25 paise. Everyone knew him in the area and he still committed that crime.

It is no accident that these people [rapists] have been caught. Only one of them had a slight criminal record, all others had no criminal record. They are not criminals that you will keep a watch on them. So if you think you can solve the problem by policing, you cannot. Better and effective policing is a different matter. But not expanding the police force.

How can better laws and better policing help in curbing incidents of rape then?
Better policing, yes, as I said earlier, but not more police. This is because our police here in Delhi are also criminally disposed, like the Punjab police who drove off the terrorists but have now become the terrorists. Capital punishment is a useless and third-grade suggestion. There is enough data available from all over the world to show that capital punishment does not make any difference in the crime statistics. It only further brutalises the society. After a while, people will get used to violence and they will demand guns and the threshold of violence goes down. That is the worst solution one can think of.

Would you like to comment on the protests in Delhi vis-a-vis protests in other metros?
The protests were stronger in Delhi because these kinds of things were in the air in Delhi. Delhi has one of the highest growth rates of violence and violence is in the air in the city. It is not like the other cities are substantially better. However there are pockets, for example, in Mumbai and Kolkata: if you can avoid these pockets then you can be safe. They don’t touch the middle class of Mumbai or Kolkata.

Protesters went to Rajpath and Raisina Hill instead of the designated protest venues such as Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mantar. Does it indicate something?
That probably caught the police unawares. The police probably would have been quite happy if it was in the Ramlila grounds or Jantar Mantar which is exempted from Section 144. However, that means that they want a controlled, manageable protest. Rajpath and Raisina Hill are the power centres of Delhi, hence the protests were there.

How do you look at the role of media in the incident?
The media has been very irresponsible and it has encouraged the anger of the people. The anger is justifiable and if turned into political power it might be beneficial in the long run. I would like it very much to leave its mark in the political system. However, that does not mean that you have to instigate this further which might have wrong consequences on young children. The media is not just covering the incident but also giving it a slant.

The visual media is quite illiterate in India, they do not read anything. I do not think any of them can quote one single book which has analysed the impact of death penalty on crime in a particular area. At least the media could have pointed out that there is no connection between the two.

We have spoken with Sudhir Kakar and he says there is a sharp contrast between the concept of woman in our traditional old society and what it is today. We are trying to ape the west but are imitating their worst traits. Do you agree?  
I totally agree. There was always in society a place for woman. We have lost our traditions. Tradition is not that the rich landlord rapes his landless labourer. Traditionally, the concept of power in our culture and the concept of activity are feminine: Aadi Shakti is what we call it.

(Ashish Nandy was interviewed on December 25, 2012. His interview has appeared in the Jan 1-15 issue of Governance Now magazine.)



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