The problem

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IN political terms, Europe entered modernity with Hobbes’ recipe of peace for the war-torn continent. He proposed a new formulation of social collectivity that would prove more durable by initiating civic rule which placed less premium on establishing God’s will on earth and more on looking after the mundane welfare of the people as a condition for the states to become stronger and more prosperous. Hobbes’s formulation was simple: as individual subjects, we deposit our personal violence, our propensity and right to kill others to the repository of the state which, in turn, promises to look after the personal security of individual subject-citizens. To imagine this repository, Hobbes borrowed the Biblical figure of Leviathan, a sea monster, huge in size and strength and, intriguingly, female. Hobbes’ formulation of peace gave an invulnerability to the state vis-à-vis violence: Leviathan presented as the concentration of violence at one point, is also a Leviathan outside ‘society’.

Hobbes realized that in the force-field of politics, the plenitude of peace is an impossibility. Consequently, his was an agenda of pacification. The notion of Leviathan is as much a formulation of justified intolerance as it is of a workable peace. If society is a space marked by the transaction of violence, it means that our understanding of ‘right’ is conditioned by what the victor confers on the rest. Equally, in this sense law is nothing but codified, acceptable violence. For the regime of law to be effective, the state must both acquire and guard its monopoly of violence. Paradoxically, however, there is no state or political formation that does not accord high respect to non-violence, no state that would contradict the proposition that samanya dharma, our life as conduct, should be founded on non-violence. Violence has always to frame itself as a special case to gain legitimacy. Legitimated violence is violence as security, self-preservation, and justice.

If violence is a species trait, if violence is what enables society, is it at all possible to counter it? Or, is it that in the name of countering violence, all we can do is to contain violence – that is, displace violence from the familiar to not yet familiar forms? Paradoxically, the greater its omnipotence, the more ambivalence it acquires. The suicide bomber, for instance, epitomizes the zone of indistinction between the killer and the killed, the oppressor and the oppressed. It appears that suicide bombings and the frequency of their recurrence – whether for secular and religious purposes – have introduced a potent, undoing ambivalence into the analytics of violence. This refers not merely to the difficulty of identifying victims and oppressors but also of separating the positive and negative sides of violence.

This proposition holds true for even what we at times characterize as counter-violence. Revolutionary violence, for instance, with its politics of justifying an elevated end through violent means, seems to have lost the references needed to be meaningful. Violence involves an excess, creating a supplementary effect on the conditions that produce violence. When excess violence becomes banal, people lose interest in the perpetrator; they are mere bodies. The mass killing of schoolchildren in Peshawar is a telling reminder of this. Nobody cares to remember the perpetrators who also died; people mourn only the innocent children who lost their lives in the carnage.

Apart from the question of representing this excess, there is an added dimension of whether a path of anti-violence like satyagraha too gets trapped in a corresponding absolutism: a force emanating from a total discipline of all bodily desires pitted against the naked power of violence. Gandhi was never wary of positioning satyagraha as a veritable warfare between violence and the call for peace. Yet, does this extraordinary discipline, framed to resist the all-determining might of the ruler, place unrealistic demands on the human? How do we practice non-violence within the limits of the everyday?

Even though commonplace, these are hugely difficult questions. The colloquium harbours no illusion of providing answers to these. Instead, in attempting to unfurl these issues, it tries to provide some clues (however localized) of the ways in which these questions are difficult, the insidious and all-embracing nature of modern governmentality in which they are tied up, the complicity of what we take as ethically exemplary, the fragility and compromises that quite often inhere our much vaunted certainties and resistances, and the prospects of a possible belonging.

If peace can at best only be pacification, what is it in the nature of modern rule that allows for this pacification at all? Pacification admittedly is never foolproof, always fragile; it breaks down from time to time. Regardless, it has a life of its own. What is responsible for this life? Is it sheer coercion? These questions lie at the very heart of modern rule; they also constitute the texture of our everyday living. Placing the problematic thus helps us to view questions of peace and violence, not as psychological constants but politically. Only by placing these questions in their historical context can we begin to recognize them for what they are and thus attempt to develop a meaningful response.