Revenge and justice, corruption and moral order

In “Duty or revenge, no one is above the law,” Gurcharan Das ( speaks of the sentencing on September 29, 2011 of 215 government officials for the rape of 18 teenage girls from the adivasi hamlet of Vachathi, near Sathyamangalam forest, on June 20, 1992. The incident must be seen in the larger context of the hunt for Veerappan. Because this is Gurcharan Das, we are led beyond a review of the case to a discussion on public feelings about justice, revenge, duty, corruption and our expectations thereof. And again, because this is Das, the point is made with an analogy from the Mahabharata, “Ashvatthama’s night time massacre of the sleeping Pandava armies, which had turned the mood of the Mahabharata from heroic triumph to dark, stoic resignation.”

Das says, “Ashvatthama was a fine young man but he was totally transformed by his father’s brutal murder. Many of the officials in the Vachathi raid were also fine young men, but their personalities changed during the losing battle against the infamous outlaw Veerappan and they got caught in a Mahabharata-like escalating cycle of revenge. How else do you explain it?” Note that there is no debate here about whether the men were responsible for the act of rape, whether they should have been punished or whether all of those who were involved in the retaliatory operation were equally responsible, even if they were not the actual rapists. The point here is more subtle: an explanation that seeks to frame and bring within comprehension a horrifying event. What made such a thing happen? How do we make sense of the officers’ misguided revenge, and the public thirst for punishment (revenge) thereafter?

To the minds of unnamed ‘civil’ citizens of the entity called India, news of such an event threatens to upset all reasonable expectations how the law functions in relation to the social contract. If their belief in the ‘laws of India’ is true, then such things cannot happen or should not happen. But this did happen; does that mean there is no rule of law in parts of India? Such a thing, too, cannot be allowed to be true, therefore they cannot allow the original rupturing event to happen, and if that is not possible, must keep it from happening again, and must compensate for the harm caused by it. Reparations are expected, within the framework of civil society.

Das says that human beings ‘naturally’ expect to extract revenge for outrageous acts, that the ‘thirst for revenge’ is a ‘legitimate human need.’ But, because “only the state is allowed to take revenge in civilized societies and we call it punishment,” the people must rest with the civilized justice of a court of law, not the wild justice of revenge.

Das’s treatment of the case mimics the function of the court of law: in the end, it fits experience/phenomenon to the mind’s capacities, and brings it down from the realms of the rare and impossible to those of the punishable. But not so far as to bring it to the level of the banal. Das compares the defendents’ claims that they were merely doing their duty to the defense of Nazi officers who also claimed to be doing their duty through torture and death chambers. Hannah Arendt has called such justification the banality of evil, where monstrous acts and events can be made to happen through the mechanized orchestration of bureaucracy, duty, and/or loyalty.

Still, Das considers the possible effects of the slow corruption of nameless individual hearts in a long war. What happens when a man is not ennobled into heroism but driven to unreason? By comparing these men to Ashvatthama and thus the Mahabharata, Das at once moves the case from the realm of law (a distinct case abstracted from the larger enabling fabric which it ruptured) into the realm of ethics (right and wrong and the limits of justifiable action), and re-sets it back into the larger framework of society and community. Now we might speak of justice, not the law.

As I see it, the case stands at the intersection of two ethical-moral problems, both involving the way power works in society: (1) the duties, roles, and responsibilities of power in uniform and the limits thereof; (2) the problem of consent and corruption, not by money or easy gain, but by the insidious fingers of frustration, failure and resulting unreasonable anger. The men did wrong especially because they were in uniform, and one feels pity and horror for the villagers who might have been caught in the middle, but one also cannot ignore the plight of men who must stay within the law when their quarry is wholly free outside it and is perhaps aided by those who should be on the side of the law.

The law is abstract, pure and whole in comparison to the people it concerns itself with, who often give their consent to justice and order only with persuasion, inducement and even then only sullenly. Until more ‘men’ can be bred and reared in an environment that encourages, enables, and moderately rewards right action, we might expect to see more ‘men’ ‘betraying’ the purpose of their uniforms and the honor of all ethical codes.

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