Disruption, demarcation and disclosure
THE urban occupies a discrete station in relation to violence within the domain of scholarship. It has been discussed as an entity that seems to possess intrinsic qualities that predispose it to violence. This essay is an attempt to assess the relationship the urban has with violence, with specific attention to the manner in which spatial relations interact with violence and bodies that find themselves located in those spatial relations. To this end, this essay proceeds through an appraisal of Louis Wirth’s classic work, ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’,1 to identify conceptual tools that will allow this essay to address the issues through the work of other scholars.
Louis Wirth understands the urban in terms of certain qualities that are specific to the city. He identifies qualities such as population aggregation, density and heterogeneity that distinguish the urban as a space distinct from the rural.2 Furthermore, following Wirth, one observes that these characteristics allow for specific kinds of lived experience that are presumably absent in the non-urban to emerge. Wirth presents urban space as constituting ‘relatively permanent compact settlements of large numbers of heterogeneous individuals’.3 One can isolate each of these qualities that Wirth identifies with the urban and trace how they seem to prefigure the city as a site ripe for the occurrence of violence.
A large population aggregation, for Wirth, predicates a situation where the form of social contact between individuals is impersonal. Wirth contends that the city is akin to a community whose number of constituent members exceeds a hundred, thereby making it impossible for them to know each other personally. City life, as a consequence, tends to be ‘impersonal, superficial and transitory’. Therefore, he conceives the city as a space of secondary rather than primary contact, where ‘the bonds of kinship, neighbourliness and the sentiments arising out of living together for a generation… are likely to be absent or relatively weak’.4 Wirth’s observations on impersonal contact are closely related to his claims on density, which situates these large numbers of individuals in close proximity with each other. The inhabitants of the urban space who live and work close together in the absence of sentimental or emotional ties foster a spirit of ‘competition, aggrandisement and mutual exploitation’.5
Wirth’s final conceptual element that inheres in the urban, that of heterogeneity, brings us closer to why the urban can be understood as a privileged site for the study of violence. In addition to the large numbers of individuals who densely inhabited a compact space, their composition in terms of regional, linguistic and ethnic identities implies a vast range of potential variation between the registers of identity that individuals can access for interpersonal (but impersonal) interaction in the city. A notable effect of this diversity is that it makes social life and action ‘more complicated, fragile and volatile’,6 as city dwellers related to each other in terms of highly segmented roles. On account of different interests that emerge from different aspects of social life in the city, individuals acquire membership in widely divergent groups, each of which pertain to a single segment of their personalities.7
In the face of heightened competition between individuals who interact impersonally in highly segmented capacities, Wirth sees the city as a ‘mosaic of social worlds where the transition from one to the other is abrupt’, a mosaic that is prone to friction and irritation.8 This friction between segmented individuals leads to widespread antagonism that often manifests itself in the form of spatial segregation. While Wirth does not specifically argue that this form of spatial segregation bears affinity with violence or particularly predisposes the urban space to violence, one can borrow from his work to argue for importance of spatial segregation in the apprehension of violence in the domain of the urban.
Wirth sees segregation as a result of the qualities that inhere in the urban space; he envisions these qualities as prior to and generative of violence in the urban. This vision is part of a wider variety of theories on violence that Allen Feldman9 rejects. Feldman takes issue with such theories as they explain violence as an expression ‘of deeper socioeconomic and/or ideological contexts’.10 Feldman’s rejection of such notions arises from their inadequacy to treat historical agency as anything more than a hollow space onto which ideological and environmental factors are inscribed in the form of violence. In contrast, he apprehends violence as operating on discrete levels of conditions and relations of antagonism, which he recognizes as discontinuous and dissimilar. Feldman argues that by distinguishing these two registers, one can observe ‘how contexts for the inception of violence are frequently transformed by their ideological representations and the material reproduction of violence’.11
Moreover, recognizing this distinction allows Feldman to treat violence as a ‘semantically modal and transformative practice that constructs novel poles of enactment and reception’, where ‘modal violence detaches itself from its initial contexts and becomes the condition for its own reproduction’.12 An understanding of violence that accords it a status greater than derivative, permits one to read an agency in violence that transforms the very contexts that supposedly allowed its existence. Such an understanding allows access to dimensions of violence that cast an explanatory light on the importance of spatial segregation in the relationship that bodies in the urban have to violence. Moreover, Feldman’s conceptual frame allows us to grasp violence as a disruption of social action in the urban that is already ‘complicated, fragile and volatile’ according to Wirth.
In the cases of Mumbai and Northern Ireland, the ideological representation and material production of violence leads to an arrangement of spatial organization that is substantially palpable in the form of massive groups of people relocating their residences as a consequence of riots. Hansen notes that in the aftermath of communal violence in the twentieth century there was a transformation in ‘the composition of central Mumbai’s population from one that previously included a considerable number of Christians, some Jews and a variety older, urban Muslim communities to one that is predominantly Urdu-speaking with a distinct North Indian complexion’.13 Belfast also saw large-scale massive relocations of Catholic and Protestant working class populations. Feldman observes that ‘the ethnically mixed working class sectors of the city and those small ethnically homogeneous districts that bordered on the larger sectarian enclaves of the opposing ethnic groups were the main sites of emigration, forced dislocation and intimidation’.14
Most residents in these two cities left due to either an anticipation of impending conflict or were coerced to leave after threats or actual violence. This is where spatial organization that is patterned by the dense and heterogeneous character of the city confronts the transformative and disruptive potential of violence. The dense patterns of settlement within the city, with their varied modes of interpersonal contact, succumb to an antagonism that is symptomized by overcrowding and housing shortages and is occasioned by violence. Spatial patterns that were originally organized on the basis of segmented roles structured around economic activity are reorganized on the basis of sectarian violence. Violence as an agent unto itself that creates the conditions of its own reproduction demarcates space in the urban. In the case of Mumbai and Belfast, demarcations follow a division of social space on the basis of borders and partitions, which I shall broadly refer to as boundaries.
Boundaries can be seen as spatial constructs that mediate economic structures, class formations, and nationalist and sectarian ideologies. In the presence of violence, space in the urban is excised of all neutrality. Urban space acquires crucial importance not just for the securities it offers and the opportunities it provides, rather it is encountered as a receptacle for identity that is vulnerable to invasion from the ‘other’. These boundaries often allow the inscription of what Feldman names ‘spatial symbolics’ onto the areas they segregate. He notes that the ‘centrality of macro-territorial concepts such as a United Ireland or a British Ulster and their complex interplay with micro-territorial constructs such as the community, the neighbourhood… reinforces the manner in which geography seeks to posit history as a cultural object’.15
A similar situation can be seen in the narratives on violence documented in Dharavi, Mumbai where boundaries are carved out by violence and designated by national and sectarian names. Boundaries between neighbourhoods are reconstituted as boundaries between communities through material signifiers like a drain or wall that separates two communities and the separated sides are referred to as India and Pakistan in the narratives of Dharavi. The boundary in this case is ‘evident, fragment, miniaturized and has multiple meanings and effects built into it.’ The boundaries in Dharavi are not a distinct physical barrier; they change form and appear as roads or drains depending on the neighbourhood they demarcate and often slip into the realm of the intangible ‘other side’ that usually designates public space or, more specifically, space that is considered as not theirs. When the boundary is constituted as such, space is demarcated devoid of neutrality, where reference to space in terms of a boundary allows its infusion with multiple layers of meaning. Therefore the drain, the road and the wall respectively, in addition to operating as borders between ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’, can operate as sites where bodies are disposed, as sites where random attacks occur and as a site where the other side of the wall is conceived as unknowable, anonymous and dangerous.16
Boundaries, through their naming sides as India and Pakistan, order a range of permissible practices within the circumscribed space. Naming acts as a mode through which bodies embedded in the named space realize themselves in and through that name, which in this case is coterminous with a community and a nation.17 The inscription of sectarian ideologies onto space in Belfast in 1969 is viewed by Feldman as an attempt at restoring symmetry between organization of residential space and residual sectarian ideologies. These ideologies posited an authoritative spatial referent in the large spatial ethnic enclaves, which received fleeing residents from the mixed communities.
Feldman claims that the demarcations created by previous instances of sectarian violence, between stable ethnic enclaves and mixed communities, endowed the latter with the status of an anomalous social space. This anomalous space became the slab on which crowd violence etched sectarian codes. However, Feldman cautions that these spaces were not passive templates for inscription of violence; instead, he avers that these spaces were a form of power that were animated.18 To elaborate this position, Feldman borrows the term ‘interface’ from the work of Boal and Murray to refer to the topographic-ideological boundary that physically and symbolically demarcates ethnic communities in Belfast. Feldman claims that interfaces were spatial constructs that emerged as a result of the recodification of mixed areas into confrontational zones. Therefore, rioting at the interface acquired the status of a conventional mechanism for setting or even extending territorial boundaries between the Catholics and Protestants.19
The demarcation set by the interface then operated as a site of contestation through marches, where the practice of marching imbibed the character of claiming territorial ownership over the space of the other. Commemorative parades and ceremonial marches typically emerged from the centre of the community, where the audience of the parade is ethnically homogeneous, to a position at the boundaries where the adjacent community is the audience. Marching along the boundary transforms the adjacent community into an unwilling audience and an object that is ripe for defilement through an aggressive display of music and political symbols. The violence that is a possible consequence of these displays is precipitated by a concentration of political signs in a reserved space that had been previously insular to the visible accumulation of political codes, precisely because of its status as a tension-provoking interface.
Furthermore, the calendrical incidences of such displays channelizes ethnic conflict ‘into specific formats, times and spaces’.20 The space here has already been demarcated due to a production of violence. Moreover, the demarcated space also details permissible forms of action, a transgression of which can result in conditions that reproduce material violence in forms specific to that space. Violence here sought to colonize the outer margins of what was demarcated as community space, while drawing sustenance from kinship and residential structures that ordered the centre of the stable ethnic enclave that Feldman names the Sanctuary.
The setup of a boundary between the Sanctuary and the Interface, as was the case with ‘borders’ in Dharavi, ordered a set of practices in terms of demarcation. These boundaries were further rigidified by the erection of barricades in the aftermath of the violence in 1969. The erection of barricades coincided with the formation of community patrols that acted as ‘vigilante groups’ and the simultaneous or subsequent emergence of paramilitary outfits. The barricade-interface altered the earlier calendrical expressions of community identity, which were characterized by an accumulation of political signs and an impulse towards a symbolic annexation of territory. The barricade-interface became a prescribed space for chronic violence that began to regulate community experience.21
As opposed to the interface that was volatile and marred with chronic violence, the sanctuary organized itself as a space of refuge for fleeing populations. The sanctuary was conceived as an ideal space that was secure from the vagaries of violence that beset the interface. Such an arrangement allowed for the codification of communities into ‘no-go areas’ and consequently coded the other side of the demarcated space as an immanent source of transgression.22 The sanctuary embodied a spatial relation with the interface that attempted to mediate violence into prescribed channels, i.e. at the interface. The sanctuary/interface complex, through spatial confinement and demarcation, organized spatial relations in a manner that subordinated the violent enactments to the prerequisites of kinship and residence, where the sanctuary was constituted as a space that was reserved for peaceful residence and kinship and the barriers/interface were designated as the sites for the ideological and material reproduction of violence. People in ‘manageable and exchangeable forms’ then conceived violence as a relation of segregation and antagonism that was passed back and forth between the barricaded communities.23
The creation of a community as a sanctuary designated an ethnically opposed adjacent community in a relation of targeting and targeted. Initially, crowds and individuals enacted targeted violence along the interface zone against those individuals, or a group of individuals, from the other ethnic group that were caught in the interface zone, or were found in areas that were deemed as community territory. However, the organization of spatial relations that were a result of the disruptive and transformative potential of violence ensured that new form of social organization based on demarcation ordered a set of practices that ensured the ideological and material reproduction of violence specific to this spatial arrangement. Given the pre-eminence of paramilitary groups who used the sanctuary as a base of operations, chronic paramilitary violence impelled a disintegration of the community space as a sanctuary by targeting the same as a site for ‘retroactive violence aimed at the confessional space’.24 Through the paramilitary practice of sectarian murder, the previous spatial relation of the interface to the sanctuary was transformed from one of distance to one of immediacy. Where the interface was now repositioned at the heart of the sanctuary.
Through an evaluation of the role of boundaries in relation to the ideological and material production and reproduction of violence, I have sought to understand demarcation as a consequence of the disruptive and transformative potential of violence. Demarcation, to my mind, is not only encoded by acts of violence but it also encodes and orders a set of practices distinct to the social relations it generates for the reproduction of violence, albeit in a different modal form. I would now like to address a specific modality in which violence interacts with body, which I would like to call disclosure.
Crowd violence is characterized by anonymity and expressed in rumour.25 This claim bears a resemblance with Wirth’s contention that individuals in the urban interacted in highly segmented capacities and their relations were secondary and impersonal. This enables a degree of anonymity to the body when placed in the urban. Violence, to my mind, in its transformative potential, has the ability to tug at the mask of anonymity offered by the urban to disclose identities through the body. This disclosure is by no means totalizing and it certainly does not entail a claim to revealing an underlying authenticity; on the contrary it is partial and forged. The forms of disclosure that violence affords are an extension into the symbolic domain of spatial relations that bodies are embedded in.
Feldman’s contrast between the hardman and the gunman gestures towards the nature of this disclosure. The hardman’s combat revolves around symbolic issues of status and the self-construction of reputation through a willingness to risk the body, thereby representing a non-instrumental ethic of violence. Through the self-construction of the self in violence, the hardman signifies the extreme individuation of violent performance, as a person who fights for himself in order to attain a personal visibility. In contrast, the gunman, is conceived as one who had ‘men behind him’, an effaced persona who utilized the mechanical component of his gun through which he performed a merely transitive function. Hardness, for Feldman is an interiorized quality that is extracted through risking the body in violent performance. For the gunman, violence is an eccentric relation, an instrumentality separable from the self, which transcends personal limits to attain magnitude.26
Feldman notes the masked gunman represents a transmission of political codes from one site to the next; by concealing the agent of violence, the violent act discloses the body of the victim in order to gain collective representation through the body of the victim marked by violence. The success of paramilitary violence is based on the maintenance of anonymity for the agents of violence, while a disclosure of the bodies of their victims acts as a surrogate for a collective representation of the organization. In stark contrast, the hardman fought to disclose his own body while simultaneously effacing the body of the vanquished hardman he fought. Hardness was a quality mastered by a few and was scarce; therefore disclosure and visibility are constructed through scarce disclosures that are individualized. Therefore, it is not hard to grasp why hardmen fought in specific spaces where visibility was afforded to them, in spaces where their bodies could be disclosed through a performance of violence. Additionally, one can also see why the gunmen are invested with anonymity as they disrupt the community spaces of the other via coordinated attacks on sanctuary spaces.27
Another form of disclosure of the body that violent acts entail is through decomposing the body and circulating its body parts. In the case of Dharavi, the body is presented through the disclosure of the body in terms of maleness and sexuality deposited in a specific part of the body, the penis.28 While this part of the body effects demarcations between Hindus and Muslim through the synecdoche of katua, which ‘refers to Muslims in general’ but also connotes a cut penis, which signifies castration and emasculation. Katua exclusively denotes the other, the enemy, the body then becomes a site, through a specific organ, for the disclosure of an identity that is insurmountably different and thereby consigned to a status of permanent otherness in both religious and territorial terms.29 This association of personal identity with the phallic organ allows for a particular disclosure of urban identity through the body that effects a transformation of the relations of members of the urban at the intersections of the community and the nation.
This essay attempts to apprehend violence and spatial relations in a relationship that disrupts the already ‘fragile and volatile’ nature of urban social relations. It focuses on the spatial relations of demarcation and the manner in which they influence and are influenced by violence, which is understood as possessing an agency unto itself and not as a surrogate of some underlying psychological or socio-political conditions. Finally, this essay seeks to understand the transformative capacity of violence through its potential to unmask the anonymity afforded by the urban to the body through a process of selective and partial disclosure, which allows one to understand the organization of bodies embedded in social relations to reproduce and represent the ideological and material reproduction of violence.
Hitherto, I have chosen to focus on urban space through the analytical lenses of anonymity, spatial demarcation and the particular mode of violence that I have named disclosure. However, the urban is not a passive slate onto which the body is writ freely and bereft of constraint; the disclosure of the body is not completely subject to the whims of the agential potential of violence. To my mind, the urban sets the stage for the disclosure to be made possible. The relations already available to it determine the limits to which violence is allowed to disrupt the spatial relations in whom bodies are embedded.
Saskia Sassen’s discussion of the city as a technology of war, while tangentially related to the idea of urban violence that is communally motivated, allows one to add another dimension to understanding the influence the urban space exerts in implicating and excluding the body in the disclosure of spatial relations and consequently, the body. She argues that in the wake of the Second World War, the city could no longer be understood merely as a location for war but also as a technology that instills fear. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are instances par excellence of how urban space inspires terror in global proportions and the destruction of a city acquires the status of a crime that is uniquely heinous. For her, the history of brutality is no longer hidden as acts of violence in the city implicate constraints consisting of ‘law, reciprocal agreements and the informal global court of opinion’.30
Sassen’s discussion of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai allows one access to the other domains that are instrumental in mediating the relationship of disclosure to the urban space. She observes that the violence was framed in the most public and media bright parts of the city.31 The Taj Mahal Hotel, whose façade was the emblem of most media coverage of the situation at the time, became a symbolic site which recruited Mumbai’s global character through its association with India’s cosmopolitan and transnational elite. This is consistent with other sites like Leopold Café and Nariman Point, which are spaces that resonate with Mumbai’s global character. Interestingly enough, these attacks were such that they brought to bear on Mumbai’s long-standing history with communal suspicion and conflict a fresh potential to reignite, especially because the origin of these attacks seemed to reside across the border. These attacks, according to Das, hinged on presenting damage not in the currency of life and property but rather through a medium of effects, i.e. the possibility of a communal riot.32 The city, therefore, has certain nodes within it that circumscribe its spatial relations with registers that are global and simultaneously communal.
Two Images of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone terrorist captured by the Indian authorities during the Mumbai Terror Attack of 2008, present an additional dimension to the disclosure of bodies and its relation to the spatial arrangement of the urban. These images were plastered across television screens during news coverage of the attack and its immediate aftermath. The first image of Kasab presented to the public made visible a mop of untidy hair, cargo pants, sneakers and a backpack carelessly slung over one shoulder. This image renders him as almost indistinguishable from an upper middle class college going boy. However, the image discloses the body of the terrorist Kasab through the AK-47 protruding like a portentous prosthetic from his right arm. I call it a prosthetic as it is essential to constituting the body of the terrorist Kasab devoid of which the image is likely to confuse itself with countless other college boys. TheAK-47 here, acts metonymically to recruit all previous images of terrorists received through films, video games and news coverage. When this component is added to the body of a young boy, it discloses his identity as a perpetrator of violence over innocents.
Furthermore this prosthetic also serves as a clue to the concealed status of the terrorist’s body in our present times, as it is only his gun that demarcates the boundaries between the countless ‘modern’ dressed boys who loiter around metropolitan cities in India and the ominous terrorist. This disclosure fuels the potential of violence to rouse suspicion towards the hordes of similarly dressed youth who are now perceived as vulnerable to the rabble rousing of terrorist organizations.
To my mind, loitering is essential to understanding the relationship violence has to a reception of urban space through mass media images. This is made apparent when it is compared to the second image of Kasab disseminated in the media, which places him seated on a plastic chair in a nondescript room with one arm bandaged and another securely handcuffed to the chair. This image is one of the captured and neutralized terrorist with no power to do additional harm. This image is in stark contrast to the previous one in so far the damning AK-47 is absent, which is what neuters his capacity for evil. His immediate surroundings are unrecognizable unlike the iconic CST station where his presence is immensely threatening.
Finally in this image, handcuffs restrain his movement to a chair, which is diametrically opposed to his cocky stride in the first image. The contrast set up by these images suggests that it is the prosthetic that obviously imbues an innocuous teenager with the potential to wreak havoc on urban space. Moreover, the setting of a recognizable aspect of a recognizable urban space and his freedom of movement in that space contribute to completion of a threat unique to a metropolitan city i.e one of terror. Here the space provided by the urban setting and its proclivity for permissive mobility is what interacts to present the complex image of the terrorist. Overall then I would like to conclude my analysis on the mode of disclosure as an important situation to consider in an apprehension of violence as it permits a student of violence to also contextualize the role of media images to a spatialized apprehension of urban bodies.
1. L. Wirth, ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’, American Journal of Sociology 44(1), 1938, pp. 1-24.
2. Ibid., p. 10.
3. Ibid., p. 9.
4. Ibid., pp. 11-2.
5. Ibid., pp. 15-6.
6. Ibid., p.22
7. Ibid., pp. 15-16.
9. A. Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.
10. Ibid., p. 19.
11. Ibid., p.20.
13. T.B. Hansen, Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001. p. 165.
14. A. Feldman, op. cit., p.23.
15. Ibid., pp. 26-7.
16. R. Chatterji and D. Mehta, Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life. Routledge India, 2007.
17. Ibid., p. 71.
18. A. Feldman, op. cit., pp.26-7.
19. Ibid., p. 28.
20. Ibid., p. 26-7.
21. Ibid., p. 31.
22. Ibid., p. 35.
23. Ibid., pp. 31-7.
24. Ibid., pp. 38-9.
25. R. Chatterji and D. Mehta, op. cit., p. 70.
26. A Feldman, op. cit., pp.52-4.
28. R. Chatterji and D. Mehta, op. cit., p. 125.
29. Ibid., p. 71.
30. S. Sassen,‘When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War’,Theory, Culture and Society,27(6), 2010, p. 38.
32. V. Das, ‘Jihad, Fitna, and Muslims in Mumbai’, The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion and the Public Sphere, 26 November 2008, http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/12/09/jihad-fitna-and-muslims-inmumbai/
Why do people revolt?
INDIA experienced two unprecedented and totally unexpected, mostly leaderless, mass uprisings of the middle class in the recent past. The latest, the so-called ‘jallikattu’ protest of the students of Tamil Nadu has just ended. The previous one was nominally led by Anna Hazare, a Gandhian ex-serviceman, and roused the people of Delhi and its environs against rampant and open corruption in government circles. In that case, a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party, was formed in short order, and it swept the polls, securing 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislature. The extraordinary success of this party baffled the moneyed, well organized long-in-the tooth national parties of the Congress and the BJP. This AAP, aptly called ‘everyman’s party’, had brought into a real people’s movement, particularly in its early stages, an extraordinary range of people, from retired naval chief, Admiral Ramdas, to Medha Patkar, the organizer of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, to Kiran Bedi, retired police chief, and hoards of teachers, auto-rickshaw pullers, and housewives. It received enthusiastic national support from almost everybody, except seasoned politicians.
As was anticipated with satisfaction by politicians, the new party soon seemed to clone itself with all the other parties – mutual accusations of corruption, incompetence and malice flew all round – and the tide of baffled protest receded. It was soon business as usual.
In the recent ‘jallikattu’ agitation in Tamil Nadu, millions of students and other young men seemed to have become suddenly and unreasonably incensed over the seemingly trivial issue of an animal rights ban on bull running during a harvest festival. The agitation left Chennai looking like a war zone. This blaze of fierce anger has baffled both politicians and administrators, at the Centre, in Tamil Nadu, and at the local district levels.
One of the most sophisticated instruments of governance is the Indian system of administration. This hierarchical and commandist structure was borrowed almost without change from its military origins in the East India Company. It has weathered many protests. It knows how to localize trouble spots, isolate leaders, use religious or caste divisions to break up groups, use the liberal language of religious and cultural sentiment, bring out gurus and poets to call for peace, and assure the masses that all will be done as required given time and patience. As final arbiters, there are the huge and well trained police and armed forces on stand by. Ethnic groupings, such as India’s diverse and culturally rich tribal communities living in forest lands coveted by mining or other interests, are ruthlessly eliminated without benefit of the usual public relations manoeuvres.
The foci of administration during colonial days was to extract wealth from India, maintain an army to serve in imperial hotspots and finally, to pacify the people. The cultural and religious heritage of the people, and their own ‘forgiving’ nature helped secure the last purpose despite horrible famines that killed more than the population of England during the 19th century. But there is a breaking point even for the mildest of people, and to prevent a political revolution, the British designed food-for-work programmes during periods of harvest failure, and other ameliorative measures. These programmes continue to this day, to prevent famine and political revolt but not endemic hunger and poverty.
After Independence, the small aristocratic group of rajas and zamindars could be brushed aside in favour of a new burgeoning commercial class, which soon coalesced with the politicians and later, increasingly, with the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. India today has over fifty dollar billionaires and over a hundred thousand dollar millionaires who live in secluded protected areas, and whose lifestyle is unimagined by the vast masses of rural folk, and visualized only on TV screens by millions of slum dwellers. The rapidly widening gap between the haves and the wretched millions of have-nots has been created by using the very plans of development to enrich the few and beggar the many. Whether it is an issue of irrigation, agricultural inputs, power supply, urban development, communications, or even defence procurement, that plan will be chosen which will first reward the rich – large dams over micro-irrigation, subsidies for agri-manufacturers over credit to farmers, nuclear energy over renewables, expensive roads over livable housing. Even the perfectly adequate public health and educational systems left behind at the dawn of Independence have been dismantled in favour of private corporate hospitals and schools.
At the very pinnacle of the large administrative structure are the privileged group of the Indian Administrative Service, a clone of the old colonial system, recruited after graduation and specially trained to exercise authority as rulers. This layer of generalists works closely with its political masters to serve the will of the ruling class. Ideas and plans which emerge from highly experienced engineers, doctors, teachers, foresters, which could be of service to the poor but which do not accord with the interests of the ruling class, are routinely dismissed by these top bureaucrats.
Most of the time the ordinary masses of India and even the lower rungs of the middle classes are too busy trying to cope, with neither the time nor the information to challenge any public policy. The British created a series of bureaucratic delays entwined in long reams of red tape, operated by several gatemen at several confusing levels, all trained to first suspect any Indian who approaches them, and deny any claim of entitlement unless wrested from the machinery after a long delay. There are unconscionable delays and matter-of-course rudeness to be met at every desk. Perhaps, this system more than any other component best prevents the masses from raising any political questions.
The middle classes do have some resources which gives them the strength to question the government, if they wish to. However, their members are not expected to rebel, but compete with each other for the loaves and fishes of office. So, it is totally unexpected and unnerving when the middle class rise up as they did with Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, or as the students have done in Tamil Nadu. Corruption was always there, since it was developed as a cultural routine by the politicians after Independence. So what was new for the people of Delhi? Equally, few of the students who brought Tamil Nadu to a halt would have had a chance to see an incensed bull, let alone to try and snatch a purse from its horns. So why the anger?
Repeated denial of opportunity, repeated harassment from officials, a state of permanent frustration, a futureless future for many creates a store of resentment against ‘them’ – those who live in posh mansions beside sprawling slums, running around in Mercedes and Jaguars buying jewellery as if there is no tomorrow, and this simmering anger is regularly stoked by an electronic media which lives on sensationalism. Inchoate seething anger bursts out in spasms like Vesuvius over Pliny’s Pompeii, or like bisons suddenly goring lions to death after allowing the predators to prey on them for so long.
Seasoned politicians will forget all this tomorrow and it may well be business as usual. Few have read their history, so few may know that it is the middle class that has led all the world’s revolutions. But a series of unfortunate accidents could occur – climate change, years of monsoon and harvest failure, a sweeping epidemic, the United States closing immigration doors, a rash move like the recent demonetization – and the army and police jawans, who are from the impoverished peasantry themselves, could falter in their duty. It might then be too late to take steps to assuage people’s anger when the tumbrils start to roll towards the guillotine.