Sunday, April 12, 2009

Touched with violence

The Telegraph

Indian society is inured to everyday sights of cruelty. Little boys working in roadside teashops being cuffed or slapped around, children carrying loads, washing clothes and utensils, running barefoot after their mothers rushing to catch the train back home after a day of labour in the city are common sights that no one registers as cruel or uncivilized. People would be surprised if told that such sights are a marker of a society’s selfish myopia, insensitivity and lack of concern about the rights and needs of the less fortunate. Efforts to spread awareness and the honing of laws, against child labour for example, may have been intended to rouse people from these characteristic darknesses; evidently they have failed. Instead, people turn inhumanity into spectacle. A young girl, Moyna Das, accused of stealing from a house, was tied by her wrists to the grills of a window outside the house to be beaten up. She was ultimately — and ironically — ‘rescued’ by the police. In the news photograph that showed Moyna tied up, the heart-breaking helplessness of her face is given its true context by the grinning, eager faces of young women close by. They seem to represent the monstrous blood-thirst and love of bullying violence that lurk in today’s society.

The people of West Bengal, whether in the city or in towns and villages, have developed a habit of taking the law into their own hands. A petty thief or a pickpocket, if caught, is very often beaten up by a vengeful mob to an inch of his life, and sometimes killed. The excuse is that the police would let the offender go; it is up to the victimized people to make sure he does not do it again. It is true that the politicization of every institution and the links of local politicians with criminals have together undermined public trust to a great extent. But all that this negative synergy does is encourage the love of violence among citizens, for the opposite of order is always disorder. Citizens feel righteous in their inhumanity: when a theft should just be reported to the police, they become the accusers, judges and executioners all in one. The most basic forms of civic life are now not just at risk, but also in danger of being forgotten. The trend is terrifying.

The enthusiastic violence is always directed at the weak, poor and helpless. No one can be more vulnerable than a young girl allegedly caught stealing in a strange neighbourhood and exposed to a delighted public. She should not have been there if society had any pretence of being civilized. The Left in West Bengal has always liked to claim credit for the absence of communal and caste discrimination. But the arrogant contempt towards claims of the humanness of the poor is a disguised form of casteism that expresses itself typically in public spectacles of collective violence of the kind Moyna faced. When violence is the only mode of touching, it is the other side of a culture of untouchability.

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