In a week during which several deaths have been recorded in India – in each, the perpetrators belonged to a social group who did not wish to enter an economic or social contract with individuals from another social group perceived as simultaneously inferior and locally oppressive, and wherein each symbolic action (words, raising the national flag on Republic Day) was the offensive trigger for violent retaliation (Chandan in Kasganj, Manjunath in Bangalore, Ankit in Delhi) – I connect the news to an incident I witnessed in Kolkata.
On Jan 28th, 2018, late at night in Kolkata, India, I observed three women being threatened with violent communal retaliation by an Uber driver because one of these women questioned the driver’s peremptory ride cancellation after the car was loaded and the trip had started. The driver told them to get out, physically intimidated them, declared he would block their street departure location with his car all night, and if the women didn’t shut up he would bring people back from Kidderpore. (The driver obviously guessed enough about his passengers to threaten them with violence from a different religious community). All this under the benign and smiling presence of local traffic policemen, who blamed the women because they couldn’t detain the driver.
Violence becomes real when it is personal. Up close, it is also a large emotion, inciting us to large actions. If we have learned to exteriorize and blame all our misfortunes on the ‘Other’ and its deliberate malice (person, group, entity, event), we enter the justificatory realm of virtuous scapegoating.
If I say my city has changed in 20 years, I will likely be called a bigoted bhakt or worse in India, a vile Islamophobe in the U.S., and a Modi-moron in my old discursive academic world (which told me to leave since I was an un-progressive settler colonial anyway). My good interlocutors will throw Ayodhya, Kashmir, NE India and Trump at me (lumped under an imagined category in their heads that they mis-read from Anglophone media; they still ask, ‘You speak Hindu?’ To which I say I don’t).
In that accusatory and reformist narrative, women such as these in the Uber tale are collateral damage in the necessary revolution of the world and the righting of historical wrongs.
In my reasoning, retaliatory justice is short-sighted and unpardonable, especially when supported by history shortened to 500 years. Violence, no matter how ‘halal,’ neither purifies nor resolves.
And yet this is how the world begins to burn again. I invite you to think on this article: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/civility-and-rebarbarization
The PhotoBooth app on iPad tells you in childlike ways how the user’s face can be distorted and changed. The world is the same. How we see distorts what we see.