The protests over George Floyd’s murder by a policeman in Minneapolis turned violent on an evening when a section of people indulged in looting, rioting and lighting a police station on fire. While further investigations revealed an infiltration of the protests by extremists, out-of-state White supremacists and other miscreants taking advantage of the situation, I thought of all the times a protest in India has turned violent.
Is violence justified as a way of protest if the causes are valid? Is there a right way to protest? I stared at the photograph by Julio Cortez which a friend had shared. It had a protester carrying a US flag upside-down “as a sign of distress”, next to a building on flames.
A protester carries a U.S. flag upside-down, a sign of distress, next to a burning building early Friday, May 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. pic.twitter.com/mH6Iy8fbDj
— Julio Cortez (@JulioCortez_AP) May 29, 2020
In the perspective of society at large, only a tangible act of destruction constitutes violence. A burnt bus is violence. Stone pelting is an act of violence that deserves retaliation with bullets. Mental or emotional harassment is not taken seriously until and unless it manifests in suicides or bruises on the skin.
However, the kind of invisible violence which is not accounted for but has been around for centuries is the dehumanisation of particular sects of people such that they live like tenants in their own country. Like parasites, who must owe the oppressors something.
Dehumanisation by rigid social and religious structures which favour the oppressors is how power is maintained: the hierarchy of the caste system for example, is a hierarchy of human dignity. As if one needs to apologise for getting access to college education instead of sticking to his legacy of manual scavenging; a fatelessness assigned to him by mortal, self-proclaimed gods.
Paulo Friere wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ”Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human.”
In Bong Hoon Jo’s film Parasite, when the persistent indignation and ostracisation of Mr. Kim precipitates in an angry murder, the desperation of the oppressed is apparent. They are violent because they want to intervene in their destiny for once, because they had no other way to voice their concerns – ‘to make the deaf hear’, as Bhagat Singh said in his court trial for Saunders’ assassination.
How does pelting a stone, torching a bus ever compare to the magnanimity of the State or centuries of the majority having its knee on the neck of minorities? Can our hunger strikes, our silent protests with skull bones and dead rats, Pinjra Tod campaigns and overnight dharnas work if the opponent doesn’t have a reliable conscience? When the army was asked why they destroyed houses of protesting Kashmiri civilians recently, they answered “to break the will of the people“.
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It’s time we know we are on the same team, playing for the same side and can either win together or not at all.
But then, is counter-violence the only way to make a point? Taking up arms breeds distrust, makes you look more like your enemy than the powerless individuals reclaiming their rights. In Bhagat Singh’s jail notebook, he elaborates on his understanding of violence as an ineffective device when he quotes Diderot,
“Power which is acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only so long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey; so that if the latter become the strongest in their turn and shake off the yoke, they do so with as much right and justice as the other who had imposed it on them.”
The same law of force which has made the authority then unmakes it; it is always the law of the strongest. Even the most well-intentioned, morally-justified violence has no retreat. It only manages to change hands. It establishes that basic human dignity can only be earned by power over others, making the concept of equality look like equal capacity to oppress.
This isn’t the social contract we signed up for, democracy is not supposed to be a free market of force. Violence is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Just like ideas do not die by killing people, an unjust system doesn’t crumble under the weight of gunshot wounds on the chests of the paramilitary, and definitely does not resurrect a system based on truth.
Albert Camus emphasised that the question isn’t if the end justify the means. Given the fact that there is no end –no end of history, no final revolution, no paradise, no utopia – the real question is, ‘Do the means justify the end?’
History testifies that revolutions with nihilistic values always end in repressive regimes worse than the ones the revolutionaries set out to overthrow. Last year, when anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh turned violent, Muslim families had to bear the brunt of disproportionate police reaction. Homes were raided, young men who did not even protest were killed, CCTV cameras were broken to destroy the evidence of vandalism done by the policemen themselves. A video showed a paralysed elderly man being dragged towards a police vehicle by policemen holding lathis merely because his house was right next to the mosque where the violence erupted. Wives and children fled the neighbourhood. Men who stepped out of their homes for prayers, never returned.
In those times, as I struggled to reshape my rage, I kept reminding myself of Gandhiji‘s words, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Violence must not be made the apparatus of justice if we do not intend it to be the law in the new world born in the aftermath. A world built on the pillars of fear and might, lives in perpetual insecurity and this insecurity of the State is compensated with suppression of dissent, military fundamentalism and war.
“At the centre of that process of criminalisation is the use of ruthless, often extra-legal force in the name of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism,” wrote Ashis Nandy. “We fear sections of our citizens because we know what we have done to them. And we see all of our neighbours embroiled in a similar exercise. The Sri Lankan state tries hard to dissociate the problem of Tamil terrorism from its consistent record of discrimination against the Tamils and the Colombo riots of 1983; Pakistan’s civil establishment hopes to resist army rule without confronting the army’s role in the Bangladesh genocide. Bangladesh in turn grudges Chakmas the rights that it claimed from Pakistan.”
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Cynicism in response to a fascist state is conformity. Despair relieves you from the responsibility of action and acts as a guiltless facade of obedience. It makes you think dreaming is illogical, hatred is only unadulterated human nature and nationalism is a channel of peace.
But just when I was filled with apprehensions and self-doubt regarding the resilience of non-violent movements, I stumbled upon a surprising crowd of old and young women. They weren’t backed up by a corporate or religious institution, did not have the money or motivation to build guerrilla cadres and hadn’t read Marx or Malcolm X.
All they did was sit in the narrow streets of Shaheen Bagh through ruthless winter nights, reading stories of love and kindness to their children, knitting sweaters and offering snacks to doctors at the voluntary health camp or the allies who were drawn by their courage. Nothing dramatic or terrifying happened there yet the atmosphere was charged with agitation, brotherhood and empathy. Just a few hundred women sitting together and reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz, rewriting destiny and quietly waging a war against religious fundamentalism.
Somewhere in an impoverished corner of the Okhla locality in South Delhi, Gandhi lived on.
Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha.
Featured image credit: Twitter/JuliaCortez_AP