We confront two kinds of violence, one that is codified into institutions and another that is institutional violence.
Afrazul and Akhlaq: These names haunt because they are more than just names; they represent an era. Years ago, riots produced a collective display of violence that India has not yet recovered from. Instead of confronting the violence, we sanitised it. In fact, we turned it into a paradigm for the new majoritarian democracy. The Afrazul incident is so singular that it evokes collective imagination as mobs came out in support of it. This murder was like a film’s cameo scene. It had no motivation, no meaning. It was not like a Bollywood film where the villainy is stylised and caricatured or where the villain plays out an archetypal possibility. These villains were mnemonic reminders of the ghouls we can be. The Afrazul incident was mundane, everyday, sordid, and Shambhulal muffed up his lines in a way no Hindi screen villain would. Yet, in the garbled language that he uttered was a sense of history that is sinister. It is also interesting to note how many murders sound like acts of pedagogy where the murderer always says he is teaching a lesson to the victim as though giving a pedagogic warning to a community. Every murderer thinks he is an exemplar and seeks to convert the ghoulishness of murder, empirical in its details, to a symbolic act. This is villainy of a different kind.
Bollywood is modest in its villainy. The villain makes no claim to goodness. But, Shambhulal made history by redressing history. He is every Indian as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. It is as if citizenship only begins with the initiation rite of reworking history. Rewriting history demands more than a text, a philistine act of mangling a syllabus. Rewriting history is a new rite of passage where villains of the past are overthrown. No Don Quixote ever overthrew windmills with greater facility. What is fascinating is the murderer knows he has the approval of society. All the murderer does is a telegram, in his autistic way, a few keywords like “love jihad” or “Padmavati” and a society of peers rises to his defence. Writing history is the new mythical act and its elevated status distances one from the sordid details of the crime. The video makes sure it is a spectacle to be consumed. As the video plays itself out repeatedly, India feels a sense of purification. A society which once celebrated the other now preys on otherness to rebuild its psychotic self. All Shambhulal is saying is literally that Modi is in power and all is right with his world because he understands in an acutely political way that he is not going to be reprimanded, because all he is enacting is the Rorschach in the Indian middle-class mind. No NCERT book can capture or visualise this history in the making.
This violence is the new initiation rite of majoritarian democracy. It embodies a belief of a majority, tired of the past evils of the minority, convinced it cannot be in peace till it has eliminated them. The new ghar wapasi is the Indian feeling at home after a murder, an act of cruelty and cowardice presented as a spectacle of heroism. Majoritarian India thinks that the lynch squad is the answer to history. Akhlaq and Afrazul are the new alphabets of this society that is trying to exorcise itself of a fabricated past by creating an ersatz future where every man is Rana Pratap and now wins the battle of Haldighati. It is almost as if India cannot stand the taint of defeat. Its heroes must win to be heroes. The power of this history is that like a sacrament it tries all men together in a fellowship of masculinity. A majoritarian politics as a myth of democracy is corroded twice, first by a demagogue as a ruler, second as each citizen enacts the creation myth of majoritarianism by eliminating a minority member. It is a purification ritual by which each citizen in a coming of age de-pollutes a society.
What is ironic about this history is that a secular positivist history is helpless. It is not facts that are being debated or footnotes like nuggets reveal a new empirical understanding. In fact, this battle of history is a contestation between hysteria and hypocrisy. Secularism, rather than being a creative act of understanding society, became an act of table manners, a political correctness which instrumentalised electoral vote banks. This hypocrisy then confronts a hysteria which finds the secular so unacceptable that it has become the taboo word of majoritarian democracy.
Yet, for all its primordialism, this new version of majoritarian history cannot achieve its goals without the video camera and the digital troll challenging any competing interpretation. Technology comes to the aid of primordial violence not through expanding the production of violence, but by increasing the consumption of violence. This was the great lesson of 9/11, the Mughal war of the West where the video was replayed to the point of redundancy, where replay rather than replicable truth became the new touchstone of reality. It is only when violence is repeatedly consumed that it becomes a part of history. The production of violence is secondary. It matters little whether it is a bomber jet or a lethal pickaxe. Murder has to be consumed repeatedly to become a new creation myth.
Let us admit it. Ours is not a society tainted merely by communalism. It is marked by an epidemic of violence for which we have few narratives and few frameworks of understanding; to understand the children raped and killed between the ages of two and 10. The language of social science cannot retreat into the standard stereotypes of migration or the breakdown of the family. The scale and the facility with which violence is enacted are worrying. We confront two kinds of violence, one that is codified into institutions and another that is institutional violence. Both the kinds accompany the breakdown of institutions. We need new ways, new metaphors of narrating, grasping and explaining them. This calls for a new kind of storytelling and this probably is the great challenge to literature and the social sciences over the next few decades.