Interview: Avijit Pathak

‘We are witnessing the repressive apparatus of the state’

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Avijit Pathak.

Interview with JNU sociologist Avijit Pathak on the rise in incidents of lynching and its social ramifications.

OVER the past two years, several Muslim and Dalit men have been lynched in Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. The modus operandi remains the same in almost every incident: first an allegation of cow slaughter or consumption of beef is hurled, then lumpen elements take the law into their own hands, the accused are dragged out of their vehicles, in case of cattle transportation, kicked around, and finally some are killed, often with the others left seriously injured. The police are either not present at the spot or turn a blind eye. Later, they register a case against the accused, letting the assailants get off scot-free on the weak defence that “no complaint was made against them”. If the lynching of Akhlaq hit the headlines, subsequent lynching incidents did not get as much media space. At best it is a reflection of the common man’s apathy towards street murder; at worst, it condones violence against minorities and Dalits.

The noted sociologist Avijit Pathak, who is also a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, spoke to Frontline on understanding the psyche behind the violence and the relative indifference of the common man to successive incidents of lynching. Excerpts:

After a spate of lynching incidents—Dadri, Ajmer, Una and the recent one at Shobapur in Jharkhand—is it fair to conclude that it is the ugliest form of mob fury?

These lynching incidents reveal three things: (a) when political power comes without liberating education, a deep philosophy of life and humanism, it degenerates into a cult of violence; (b) when this brute power is reconciled with a propaganda machinery that breeds stereotypes about the “stigmatised others”, individuals lose their autonomy and creative thinking, and what emerges is the mob psychology of fascism; and (c) the normalisation of violence that aims at generating fear and destroying the basic human dignity of the so-called “enemies”.

Each incident has been followed by political silence. A Union Minister called the Dadri incident a law and order issue, and later draped the body of the alleged killer with the national flag. Both the Ajmer and Shobhapur incidents were initially denied. What does it say about the violence?

This political silence is pathetic. And the tragedy is that this sort of violence is often legitimised in the name of hyper-masculine nationalism. In fact, we are witnessing not merely the ideological apparatus, but the repressive apparatus of the state. History has shown the dangers of this sort of authoritarianism—recall the days of Sanjay Gandhi. A man like M.K. Gandhi repeatedly reminded us of the ugliness of the coercion of a mighty state; it diminishes the moral power of the community. And today the danger is rather severe because if, in a plural society, the onslaught of majoritarianism is not controlled, we may see the sanctification of violence for the glory of “Bharat Mata”.

In every case, the police register a complaint against the victims and arrest them. The attackers are not apprehended first. Does it not erode the victim’s confidence in the system, defeating the basic premise of justice?

Of course, yes. It seems that the administrative machinery has lost its autonomy. In India, from the time of Indira Gandhi, we have been destroying institutions. The ruling political establishment seeks to interfere in the activities of all organs, be it the judiciary, the CBI, the RBI, or the police. Furthermore, the cops are seldom sensitised. Without education and sensitisation, one tends to feel that the uniform has given one the licence to become rude, aggressive and violent. Yes, we seem to have lost faith in these institutions. This is the overall “legitimisation crisis” we are passing through.

There was public outrage when Akhlaq was killed. However, now society seems incapable of reacting with horror to such horrific incidents. What can be the reason for such apathy?

Indifference to human tragedy and political violence is the worst enemy of human civilisation. There are many reasons for this gross indifference. We are losing what sustains a civilisation—basic trust, everyday interaction, dialogic public space, empathy and human sensitivity. The toxic social media, the bombardment of loud television channels, the selfishness inherent in the growing culture of consumerism and the psychology of fear—everything has intensified this callous indifference. And, of course, if the victims are poor and marginalised we, the urban middle class people intoxicated with our gadgets and shopping, pretend that nothing has happened. This non-reflexive culture promotes narcissism. The selfie phenomenon is the symptom of our times.

As a sociologist, how do you look at the lynching spree in the land of Mahatma Gandhi?

Mahatma Gandhi was a Christ-like figure walking through the risky path of politics. His celebrated Hind Swaraj reveals the agenda of a decolonised/emancipatory world with the core principles of decentralisation, sarvodaya, ahimsa, austerity and sustainable development. We have reduced Gandhi to a museum piece; and every day, like Nathuram Godse did, we keep killing him. However, Gandhi, for many of us, remained as a conscience. If still in this dark world there are people who dare to speak the truth and retain the language of sanity and peace, there is hope. As Sufi stories tell us, everything is a passing phenomenon. Even this satanic raj will wither away.

As a sociologist, to begin with, we need to understand the deeper meaning of ahimsa as articulated by Gandhi. It is not merely an escape from violence, it is not cowardice; it is not a matter of mere political strategy. For Gandhi, it emanates from what he was fond of regarding as “soul force”. It needs courage, the cultivation of the art of dying; it needs self-discipline, endurance, sattvic calmness and satyagraha. And, of course, it is related to his world view—a plan for a decentralised/self-reliant community living with a sustainable engagement with nature.

Not surprisingly, Gandhi saw colonial modernity as a manifestation of brute force. Decolonisation, for him, meant a paradigm shift—from brute force to soul force. However, even Gandhi’s disciples often used Gandhi in a strategic fashion; deep inside their hearts many of them, including Nehru, were not fully convinced of Gandhi’s utopia. For instance, the path that we chose after Independence is hardly Gandhian.

The modernity project that we chose to undertake has its own stories of violence—from environmental disaster to displacement. And now the project of hyper-masculine nationalism coupled with the neoliberal global capitalism is terribly violent. The incidents of violence you are referring to have to be situated in this context. See the irony of history. Till his last moment, from Noakhali to Bihar to Delhi, Gandhi was striving for cross-religious conversation and peace; yet, in his own Gujarat, you saw the worst form of communal massacre.

And the assertive new India, with its non-reflexive middle class, consumptionist youngsters trained in technology but culturally impoverished, television channels, shopping malls, seems to have forgotten everything. As development becomes a virtue, all historical memories are subdued. Yes, we do need a counter-hegemonic struggle. And in that struggle we have to invoke Gandhi. We have to understand his spirit. Is it possible in the near future? I have no answer.

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