- Top of page
- CONFLICT, COMMUNITY, AND BONDS OF LOVE
- TRACING THE “SPIRIT” OF VIOLENCE
- REFERENCES CITED
For more than four decades, local-level workers of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in the southern Indian state of Kerala have been involved in a grievous political conflict. Drawing on my ethnography among members of the two groups, I describe how responsibility for this violence has been elided and effaced especially among members of the Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS). Crucial to this elision has been the workers’ close-knit community of friends and supporters that they forge by extending everyday assistance, care, and mobilizing support in small neighborhoods, towns, and villages of the region. Modes of sociality and concepts of relatedness so generated not only mitigate individualizing experiences of suffering but also subsume individual responsibility for acts of violence within the whole. This article is about such dissolution of culpabilities, and the affects, emotive concepts and conditions of collective life that make it possible.
According to court records, on the night of January 25, 1994, eight men “armed with axes, swordsticks, and choppers” burst into the small house where 29-year-old Sudheesh lived with his parents (Purushothaman and others v State of Kerala, Sessions Case [SC] 125 of 1997:5) in Kannur District of Kerala, South India. The men attacked Sudheesh, a student leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist [CPI (M)]); inflicted with 33 wounds, he died later that night. The alleged assailants, all eight of them, were local-level workers of the Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (National Volunteers Association), better known as the RSS or the Sangh. When the case came to trial, the trial court judge acquitted five of the accused but convicted the other three and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The convicted RSS workers launched appeals, but the Supreme Court of India rejected these appeals and confirmed their life sentences in June 2003.
The Sudheesh murder case was one of nearly 500 cases of political violence that have been tried in the Kannur District Court of Kerala since the late 1970s. Approximately 4,000 workers of various political parties have been charged with crimes that range from murder and attempted murder to criminal intimidation of workers of other political parties.1 Local-level workers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right (and its electoral affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party [Indian People's Party], or BJP) have been the key protagonists. However, 80 percent of these alleged agents of violence have been acquitted in cases adjudicated from 1978 to 2003. Sudheesh's murder trial was one of the few that ended in convictions, even on successive appeals.2
As in the Sudheesh case, outcomes in a large number of these cases have hinged on testimonies of supporters and sympathizers of the two political groups. Underlying their testimonies have not only been strategic maneuvers designed to defeat the opposing group in court but also webs of affective relationships that members of the two groups share with their respective supporters. These communities of workers and sympathizers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right have thus influenced many cases of political violence inside the courts. Outside the courts, Hindu right-wing communities in particular have played another role affecting the afterlife of violence. I argue that outside, in intersubjective spaces where Hindu right-wing workers talk about their violence, they approximate the units of a single corporate body. Here subjectivities are enmeshed with one another, individualities obliterated, and each person is believed to be a substitute for the other. No one can be reproached or held culpable for an act of violence; violence is said to “somehow” happen and can be disclaimed.
In this article, I draw on my ethnographic research among Hindu right-wing workers, especially of the RSS, to describe the conditions of this elision of responsibility.3 I examine modes of sociality that make sublation of culpability possible, the ways in which such relations are gradually generated, and how local-level RSS workers come to live, experience, and perpetuate them.4 Over 18 months—in 2000–01, 2002–03, and in the summers of 2008 and 2009—I conducted research amongst members of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right, interacting with them and their supporters in party offices, training camps, and their homes. As a “native” and “non-native” anthropologist (Narayan 1993), seen as an outsider but also accepted enough to be allowed in, I heard admissions and disavowals of violence from both the workers of the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right. However, as I will explain, it is among workers of the Hindu Right that conditions of collectivization and thereby elisions of culpability are substantively realized.
Anthropologists and historians have been interested in collectivities and communities as agents of sociopolitical action for a long time (Anderson 1983; Davis 1975; Durkheim 1984; Thompson 1971; Turner 1968). The doyen of the Subaltern Studies Collective, Ranajit Guha (1999), emphasized their importance in his work on peasant insurgencies in colonial India. Like Natalie Davis, E. P. Thompson, and Victor Turner, Guha emphasized the symbolic logic prevalent in different groups—their customs and rituals, their terms of self-identification, and their definitions of us and them—as variables that constitute communities as purposive political actors. Their purpose and mode of action were relayed through real or fictive kinship ties and networks, which account for the rapid spread of peasant movements and their unschooled militancy and call to arms. What they achieved, notes Partha Chatterjee in his commentary on Guha's work, was the spread of a consciousness that was born not from the conjoining of separate, individual interests but from individual identities that were themselves derived from participation in collective action and membership in a community (2000:14). The community was, writes Chatterjee, “what bound together the structure of peasant consciousness” (2000:15).
Popular and party politics in postcolonial India have been similarly marked by identifications with various collectives. A number of scholars have noted the emergence of political actors who define themselves not as individuals but as constituents of closely knit communities with shared concerns and goals (Chatterjee 2004; Hansen 1999, 2001; Kaviraj 1998). This is not to say, however, that such communities are “preconscious entities” (Hansen 1996:66) whose members are tied together by always already present emotional bonds. On the contrary, the generation of communities is hard work. In contemporary India, various political groups have sought to forge such communities at the local level as part of their project to generate a “we,” a collective or a “people” in whose name they might be able to rule legitimately. The Marxist Left and the Hindu Right are two such important entities.
The Communist Party has enjoyed considerable popular and electoral support in Kerala since the late 1940s (Menon 1994; Nossiter 1982).5 Since the 1970s, the RSS and its electoral affiliates (the Jan Sangh and then the BJP) have been assigning their workers to the towns and villages of the region. Here, too, as in other parts of India, local-level political workers have become participants in the care and management of the everyday lives of people. They can be found at party offices casually or excitedly discussing local and national issues of the day, at public meetings and demonstrations, or on street corners and in village squares engaging with the residents’ daily concerns and thereby making their presence felt. Workers of the two political groups have thus sought committed supporters and also tried to transform them into loyal electoral backers. In this pursuit, they have mobilized ties of friendship, real or imagined kinship, and definitions of us and them. Intense competition over votes and supporters has ensued, resulting in violent conflict between local workers of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right.
As in other regions of India, in Kannur district and other parts of North Kerala too, violence has become the public face and means of enhancing influence and power among potential supporters. Violence has occurred during confrontations between workers of the two groups and in orchestrated attacks involving everything from fists, sticks, and homemade bombs to swords, daggers, and iron rods. Some instances, like Sudheesh's murder, have culminated in terrible and spectacular instances of violence that have been memorialized, lingering in the memories of residents for decades. I draw especially on workers’ narratives and their reflections on culpability in the wake of such violence.
Thomas B. Hansen (2008) has also analyzed the problem of culpability and collective violence in India. He describes how such instances of violence are depicted as “pure events” or examples of “spontaneous combustion” and spilling of “spontaneous rage” (Hansen 2008:1) in the Indian legal and public sphere. Marked by a force and impetus of their own, dense and driven crowds are said to “devour” (Hansen 2008:31) all they can. In such crowds, individuals are believed to lose their singularity to merge and become one (Hansen 2008:33). The crowd's agency is not attributed to anybody but is known only through the destruction it brings in its wake (Hansen 2008:46).
Although some elements of collective violence have been present in the actions of members of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in Kerala, members have not gathered into enormous crowds to “devour all they can.” Neither have they sought to eliminate entire communities as Hindu nationalists did in Gujarat and Mumbai in recent times (Sundar 2002; Padgaonkar 1993). Workers of the Left and Right in Kerala have instead fought each other as social near equals and in smaller numbers. On average, small groups of individuals have clashed with groups of the same size or targeted a single member of the opposing group. Consequently, popular and judicial representations have rarely elided individual responsibility. On the contrary, police and the courts have identified, seized, prosecuted, and convicted the persons apparently liable—subjecting many to long, arduous trials. At the same time, individual responsibility for violence in Kannur has been disavowed and dissolved in the communities that the workers form among themselves.
Central to the dissipation of culpability in Hindu right-wing communities are notions of being one with the whole. This sense of consubstantiality is different however from the fleeting effect of numbers and density of a crowd that Hansen describes. Instead, such consubstantiality is gradually obtained through discursive and other everyday practices of exchange. Everyday interaction, exchange, emphasis on familial feelings, and the discourse of “love” make and bind members of the RSS community to one another. Their selves and subjectivities are articulated in narratives that emphasize the “spirit” of the community and the love that animates it.
In these narratives, especially when workers talk about their violence, individual selves are subsumed in the whole, and agency becomes “transindividual” and depersonalized (Feldman 1991:53). When an individual subject speaks through the “we,” his particularity is belied and expunged. Violence becomes nameless—not necessarily without an addressee, but without an addressor—enacted by particular individuals whose specific identities have been dissolved in the communities they form with one another. That is the form that blamelessness and impunity take here. This article examines the forms of sociality and the repertoire of representational strategies shared by workers of the Hindu Right that serve as paradigmatic conditions for the creation of such a nameless and blameless community of perpetrators.
- Top of page
- CONFLICT, COMMUNITY, AND BONDS OF LOVE
- TRACING THE “SPIRIT” OF VIOLENCE
- REFERENCES CITED
This story brings me back to the courts, where supporters of the RSS and the CPI (M) testify to seek acquittals for their own and convictions for members of the opposing group. As noted, RSS members supported Ajayan's alibi in court. Outside, the “spirit” of the group served to mitigate his culpability just as it mitigates other RSS workers’ responsibility for their violence. This is not to say that there are no glitches in such alibis. Arrests, individualizing court procedures, long-running trials, and the pervasive awareness of people injured and killed threaten to disrupt the transindividual group agency that subsumes identities of culpable individuals I(s). At the same time, the collective life of the community and the ways in which its members assert and celebrate it help the workers overcome this dissonance. Team spirit is animated in shakhas, camps, and other places where RSS workers get together. The discursive force and affective surge of this spirit allow the glitches in the alibis to be covered over.
Kathleen Stewart reminds us, “The politics of any surge depends on where it might go. What happens. How it plays itself out and in whose hands” (2007:15). As we have seen, in communities such as those of the Hindu right, everyday practices of exchange, forms of sociality, and notions of sameness and unity enable local-level workers to be subsumed within their collective. Although Hindu right-wing communities often provide optimal conditions for this dissolution and resulting disavowal of individual culpability, similar forms of relatedness and feelings of unity with a whole can come alive in other contexts too. Where are the attendant affective surges and representations going? And what are they sublating? These are, I believe, important questions that anthropologists of violence have to answer as they study enactments and the afterlife of violence. That afterlife may lead to accountability or produce a politics of blamelessness and impunity. Those who evade responsibility do not have to be above the law, act in large groups, or use instruments of aggression such as fire that remove all traces of responsibility. They can, like Hindu right-wing workers in Kerala, just be absorbed in their community and therefore be difficult to separate from the whole thereby achieving impunity for themselves and their group.
1. My computations are based on records of trial court judgments archived at Kannur District Court, Tellicherry. There are no officially published statistics available; however, one report compiled by the then District Superintendent of Police lists 352 cases of political violence including 69 attempts to murder and 28 murders that occurred in the region from 1978–1981 during a particularly intense phase of the violence (Alexander 1989:890–1091). According to the report, nearly all these cases ended in acquittals. Media accounts speak of 2000 “clashes” through the 1980s and 1990s (Mary 1999). According to The Hindu, 127 political murders took place in Kannur in those two decades (Tampi 1999); the Mathrubhumi lists 142 political murders from 1980–2000 (Sasindaran 2000).
2. Out of a sample of 240 judgments in murder and attempted murder cases that I studied, the judge cleared all the accused in nearly 200 cases. These judgments were mostly delivered between 1978 and 2003. In this article, I have changed most names and altered some circumstances of events to preserve anonymity except when I draw on court records to describe these events and persons.
3. As described below, my research involved workers of the CPI (M) as well. However, disavowal and elision of culpability took on much more elaborate and strong forms among members of the Hindu Right than the left-wing workers.
4. Much has been written about the relationship between the RSS, the “mother organization” of the Hindu Right, and its various wings such as the BJP (Andersen and Damle 1987; Puri 1980). The RSS has repeatedly sought to position itself as merely a “cultural organization” interested in instilling cultural nationalism. Indeed, until the 1950s, its leaders expressed an aversion to party politics However, it soon recognized the importance of acquiring state power—just before the first general elections in independent India, when leaders of the RSS paired with members of the Hindu Mahasabha to form the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Together, they fought the general elections with RSS-trained members holding key positions in the party. In 1980, the Jan Sangh was reinvented as the BJP. Especially in the context of the violent conflict with the local level CPI (M) workers, membership in RSS and BJP has become seamless. A number of workers I spoke with cite the RSS as their primary affiliation, even if they work for other wings of the Hindu Right.
5. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was formally founded in 1925, in the middle of one of the most eventful decades of the anticolonial movement in India. These were years of widespread strikes and food riots. At the time of India's independence in 1947, the CPI stated revolutionary upsurge as its primary goal and consequently repudiated parliamentary democracy. But failing to generate such an upsurge across India, it joined the electoral fray. In the first general elections, the CPI emerged as the biggest opposition party at the center and in state power in Kerala. In 1962, the CPI split into two constituents: the CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M). Since then, the CPI (M) has been the dominant partner in the Left coalition and has been at the helm of several state governments in West Bengal and Kerala.
6. Kerala and Karnataka have been cited as two states that saw a substantial rise in the ranks of RSS workers during the emergency and postemergency years. Jaffrelot points out that across the country, the number of shakhas had grown to 13,000 in 1979. The expansion also included affiliates such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which grew from 1.2 to 1.8 million adherents between 1977 and 1980, while the RSS student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad's strength grew from 170,000 to 250,000 between 1977 and 1982 (Jaffrelot 1998:203).
7. Tiyyas are the largest subgroup of Hindus in North Kerala. Since the 1940s, they have been able to transcend their low-caste status through educational and occupational achievements, caste reform movements, and through participation in political movements (Menon 1994). Some Tiyyas, however, have continued to engage in blue-collar occupations, and they make up the lower echelons of both the Marxist Left and Hindu Right. Although members of both the groups espouse principles of caste equality in their own fashion, I argue that it is competition over communities of potential supporters—Pulayas, members of the fishing community, mill workers, and so on—which impels the conflict between CPI (M) and RSS-BJP workers, and not their own or their potential supporters’ caste or religious affiliations per se.
8. My assistant, Pradeep, a 23-year-old anthropology student at Kannur University, contributed greatly to my research. His easy and trustworthy demeanor, and the fact that he was a serious young man from the district, helped to mitigate the sense of self-consciousness that some male workers felt in the early days of my research while walking, traveling with, and talking to me, a young urban female researcher.
9. In May 2003, the Times of India reported that according to the RSS national spokesperson there were 3000 RSS shakhas in Kerala, the highest amongst all the states in the country.
11. A number of authors have written about the social welfare strategy central to Hindu nationalist groups (Deshpande 1998; Gupta 1982). For a short summary see Jaffrelot's edited volume (2005:197–224).
12. In a frequently cited speech, K. B. Hedgewar, founder of the RSS, speaks of it as a “family” and a “fraternity” (see Jaffrelot 2005:64).
13. Names and locations of several interlocutors have been changed except when they are drawn from court records.
14. Appearing in court becomes an overt way to show support. In some instances, such actions also become ways of testing loyalties to the group. Future assistance from local-level Hindu right-wing workers becomes contingent on passing such tests. It is in such small ways one might say that the Hindu right-wing community is also managed and policed.
15. Elsewhere I have described how Communist Party workers’ narratives about their violence differ from those of Hindu nationalists. Although tropes of friendship and even love occur in the Communist Party's workers’ statements, they are articulated much more tentatively. I argue that the discourse of class struggle and people's democracy that Communist Party workers absorb does not anchor or help evolve affects associated with friendship, love, and so on. I would like to thank Jinee Lokaneeta for her insights on this question.
16. Words such as spirit, team spirit, and action were English words that workers of both the CPI (M) and the RSS employed in their conversations about violent events. Other such words employed during conversations in the vernacular were fighters or fighter club to refer to members of these groups more inclined to violence.
17. Mamman Vasu was killed on December 12, 1995. Five RSS workers were tried at the Kannur District Court and sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment for his murder. See SC 22 of 1999.
18. Like most other Malayalam speakers (Jayaseelan 1999:24), Sadanand Master dropped the subject pronouns when he spoke. I have added them in parentheses to make his statement easier to read in English. It is also important to note that the “utterance context” and gestures personalize “syntactically impersonal constructions” (Wilce 1998:86).
19. Notions of dharma and chaitanya are key elements of the RSS canon. They find a special place in the writings of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of the founders and most important ideologues of the RSS. See Golwalkar (1966), and Andersen and Damle (1987:71–83) for a short summary.
20. “Vetti murichchu (“cut up”) or “Avane vetti murichchu” (cut him up) were words often used to describe violent attacks between members of the Marxist Left and Hindu Right in North Kerala. They connote not just the nature of injuries, but also the instruments such as sickles and swords that were used to inflict the injuries.
Editors’ Note: Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on political conflict in India. See, for example, Anand Pandian's“Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India” (2008), Ananthakrishnan Aiyer's“The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India” (2007), Aradhana Sharma's“Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006), and Ritty Lukose's“Empty Citizenship: Protesting Politics in the Era of Globalization” (2005).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on nationalism and violence, including Arafaat A. Valiani's“Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement” (2010), Lori Allen's“Getting by the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada” (2008), and Charles Briggs's“Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence” (2007).