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The Narrative of Dissillusionment

Photo Credit: Reuters

Recent writings and conversations have attributed our tryst with dissent in the last two years to bourgeoning disillusionment with structures meant to protect individuals, citizens, gender(s), consumers, and our many identities, perceived to be under attack from “them”. This past year, different forms of violence were debated and protested; yet, the resulting need for a violent response often goes uncontested, searching for approval in different spaces from the living room to the Internet. The seemingly solid link between deterrence and vindication needs questioning, especially if the result is bad precedent.

This is not to say all expression is retributive, or claim that all protests/protesters have only sought retributive justice. However, the growing assumption among many that justice should be devoid of conversation, and dissent must derive from the idea of violating instead of engaging is a frightening prospect.

After the heinous case where a 23 year-old girl was brutally assaulted and raped by six men in Delhi last year, there was an outcry demanding capital punishment for the accused. In many instances, commentators on national television willfully attributed this demand to their anger and disappointment with systems and authorities duty-bound to protect individual rights. Yet, little derived from the efficacy debate surrounding capital punishment. Loudly expressed “political correctness” created the assumption that the death penalty would work as a deterrent.

As a result, many continue to confuse the need for justice with the incapacity of existing institutions to provide adequate remedies. As with discussions regarding religion and privacy, reactions always seem to tend toward the extreme. While this may reflect disdain and disillusionment, it does not represent introspection and careful thought of what the ramifications of these demands would be. This is why the conversation about precedent is important. These issues and those involved are categorized into singular identities of victims, accused or survivors, with little talk of what the implications of this will be. Recently, the woman journalist who was sexually assaulted by Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Delhi-based investigative magazine Tehelka wrote: “Perhaps the hardest part of this unrelentingly painful experience has been my struggle with taxonomy. I don’t know if I am ready to see myself as a “rape victim”, for my colleagues, friends, supporters and critics to see me thus.”

In his book Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen wrote: “This reductionist view is typically combined, I am afraid, with a rather foggy perception of world history that overlooks, first, the extent of internal diversities within these civilizational categories, and second, the reach and influence of interactions—intellectual as well as material—that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilizations.”

Even if one were to justify the “foggy perception of world history” as part of the very diversity of thought that Sen argues for, it is worth noting that the trickle down of language, taxonomy and wishful thinking continuously create spaces for violence to become possible. How we discuss these things cannot be removed from everything and everyone we accuse of causing violence in the first place.

The growing comfort with demanding retribution may lead to a moment of triumph like celebrations in streets across India and on social media after Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving militant who took part in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was hanged last year. But little attention was paid to the growing comfort with violence that these moments of jubilation create. Perpetuation of violence has become possible in an environment where justice equals retribution from institutions that represent fairness but cannot manage to set standards.

Further, existing redressal mechanisms or ways of engaging with the system become avoidable because for many who see violence as an option these mechanisms or institutions are seen as adversarial. The need for retribution only takes into account the suffering of individuals due to the failure of institutions around them, but forgets the need for institutional change as a valid route to long term change, dismissing our role as spectators, and not stakeholders. In an article titled “The Future of Politics and the Politics of the Future” that appeared in Seminar Magazine, the eminent sociologist Shiv Visvanathan wrote: “Institutions are seen in this secular sense as delivery systems rather than sacred spaces of access and value. Their connectivities are of a different sort. Their sense of body, sensuality, speed and problem defines democracy as a system of problem solving in a different way.” “Delivery systems”, as Visvanathan points out, exist to serve the consumer. For many disillusioned consumers, their identity creates a sense of entitlement that far exceeds the desire to engage with the bigger picture.

If these identities: consumer or citizen are under attack, questions of why they continue to stem from within social structures we create, contribute to and learn from, requires a careful examination of our role as well. This seeming demarcation between “them” and “us” has allowed us think of violence as a valid counter to injustice, but the larger failure lies in our inability to create spaces where no violence would occur to begin with. Social justice cannot be inclusive unless we rethink the way we see our relationship with people and institutions around us, especially if the isolating taxonomy continues to thrive.

Surabhi Vaya

Surabhi Vaya is a freelance journalist. She recently graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and lives in Ahmedabad. She previously worked at the Mumbai Crime Desk of the national-daily, The Hindustan Times.