This post builds on the research article ““Somehow it Happened”: Violence, Culpability, and the Hindu Nationalist Community,” which was published in the August 2011 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview With the Author
Swargajyoti Gohain: What led you to your interest in the anthropology of violence?
Ruchi Chaturvedi: My interest in violence grew out of a broader interest in political anthropology. I believe that what the focus on violence can enable scholars to do is zero in on the contradictions that mark modern day polities. Violence of the kind that I have come to study in Kerala might be described as that dissonant phenomenon, which is both exceptional and normal (Giovanni Levi 2001: 13), low-grade, routinised and similar to political conflict in many parts of India if not the world, but also what becomes intense in various moments. It has various peculiar andexceptional features; at the same time these exceptional dimensions provide valuable insights into some characteristic political strains and tensions of our times. My specific preoccupations have been with the nature of popular politics and the business of forging political communities in postcolonial democracies.
S.G: There have been theories about crowd behavior or mob effects that contend that violence committed by mobs is often the spontaneous outburst of a collective, but transient, rage. You attempt to go beyond such formulations by examining the realm of practice, or the space outside discursive space, by looking at the everyday practices that make possible such a discourse of elision, and in this respect, you talk about the community welfare projects of each party that make possible the conditions for such a discourse. Do you feel that anthropologists can contribute much more to societal understanding by looking at conditions and practices rather than the textual/discursive space?
R.C: Like many other scholars, I too don’t think we can disjunct everyday practices from the discursive contexts in which they occur. One set is closely entwined with the other, often making the other possible. Among scholars who have studied violence in South Asia, Gyan Pandey (1990) and Thomas Hansen (2008) have described how the notions of spontaneous outbursts of collective violence are also discursive tropes. These tropes had currency amongst colonial authorities who regarded so-called spontaneous violence as one more sign of the native’s fanaticism and irrationality; these characterizations are also current in contemporary police and media discourses. In police actions, they provide the rationale for exculpating some crowds that the police are sympathetic to and cracking down on other “unruly” groups (for instance, in Bombay of 1992 and 1993 – one of many such instances). This is not to say that elements of the ecstatic are not often present in violent enactments but ecstatic and effervescent elements have their own context, conditions of possibility and relationships to different kinds of political subjectivities. In my view, it thus becomes important to examine both the effervescent aspects of violence and regard the discourse about such effervescence critically.
S.G: In Kerala, where you carried out your ethnographic project, the violence occurs between two parties with diametrically opposed ideologies. One is left-wing and the other right-wing. But have you ever had occasion to wonder whether those involved in the violence are consumers of party ideology or whether their actions and reactions are motivated by loyalty to the people who have often stood in for state agencies, when it came to support in healthcare, education or basic livelihood issues? As a related question, how do you gauge the role of the state or state functionaries in this situation of chronic, communal, violence?
R.C: Once again, Left and Right-wing workers’ practices of generating support – assisting with school admissions, hospital beds, small loans etc – can’t be disjuncted from the ideological or discursive realm. You might recall the RSS activist in the article speaking about the “psychological approach” of generating support – laying the grounds for conversations about ideological matters by so assisting residents of the region in their everyday lives. A number of scholars ranging from Satish Deshpande (1998) to Dipankar Gupta (1982) and Christoph Jaffrelot (2005) have also made this observation about the Hindu Right. A close look at the Left’s modes of mobilization also reveals similar patterns.
S.G: Violence, ethnic or communal, is a recurring phenomenon in several parts of India today. In many of these cases, the bonds of love (the translation of your concept “snehabandam”) that exist among party workers in Kerala because of community help projects, do not exist (In fact, the conversion of personal relations to ideological relations could be a strategy peculiar to that of the RSS or as Thomas Blom Hansen describes, of the Shiv Sena in Maharasthra, which has strong affiliations with the RSS). However, the boundaries between an ethnic/ communal “us” and “them” are present and manifest in many incidents of collective violence in other parts of India and the world. Would you then say that what the RSS does is to enable the demarcation and consolidation of group boundaries through their acts of community welfare?
R.C: The RSS does stand out in its deployment of a “psychological approach” and evocation of ideas such as “snehabandham” – almost in a programmatic fashion. But a number of scholars, from E.P. Thompson (1971) to Ranajit Guha (1999), have emphasized the importance of customs, rituals, symbolic logic, real or fictive kinship networks in the forging of political communities and conditioning of political action. Terms of self-identification, definitions of us and them go hand in hand. But these ties and these communities are not givens. They have to also be worked upon and generated often through the gift-like relationships that I describe in the article. Members of the RSS certainly work hard to generate strong, affective relationships, a bounded and, as you say, a clearly demarcated community antagonistic towards others. My article is one amongst other works that discusses that process of community formation. I have tried to foreground the nature of relationships and subjectivities so formed to acts and narratives about violence.
S.G: Your article implies that acts of violence by party workers are inseparable from other collective rituals, such as, say, building a shanty house for a poor co-worker, for both are, in the end, ‘acts of love’. This is a very insightful observation, but also disturbing in its implications. Your comments.
R.C: I don’t think helping to build a party sympathizer’s house and political violence should be seen on a simple continuum. They are discrete yet linked moments. Several variables peculiar to a place and its history have to intersect for these apparent “acts of love” to follow one another. That said, this relationship between the two moments reminds us that political violence should not simply be demonized, whether that violence be of the Left or the Right. That’s too easy. Comprehending the most deplorable forms of violence entails looking at the making of political identities, subjectivities and actions and “love” has always been a key factor in that making.
I am actually reminded of a quote from Al-Rai newspaper, a paper of the Arain community in Punjab, that the historian David Gilmartin cites in his recent article on caste and the making of political communities in South Asia (2010). The quote expresses the Arain(s) willingness to bear the wrath of God for turning to their kin and kinship like relations in the making of political community. Gilmartin quotes:
God is our witness that we are involved in the crime of love,If it is a crime, then God will not forgive us (Al-Rai February 14, 1939).
The business of forging a ‘We’ from ‘you’ and ‘I’ involves the language of love, helping to construct someone’s house, helping them out in sickness or to get a job, and might be preceded or proceeded by violence as well.
Daniel, E. Valentine. 1996. Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Politics of Friendship. London: Verso
Feldman, Allen. 1991. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of Violence and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hansen, Thomas Blom. 2001. Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press.
Spencer, Jonathan. 2007. Anthropology, Politics, and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Sundar, Nandini. 2004. "Toward an Anthropology of Culpability." American Ethnologist. 31 (2): 145 – 163.
Tambiah, Stanley, J. 1996. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.