Revisiting Mahatma Gandhi’s (anti) legacy: 74 years ago, a socio-political rhetoric of nonviolence for Indian liberation took root in and became an integral part of our social norms. We internalised the narrative of not replacing a violent structure of oppression with another violent structure of oppression. Yet, post-independence, this norm, once a powerful clarion call for collective mobilisation against a brutal colonising power, met with a swift demise.
In 21st-century India, one cannot open a newspaper or get through the day without witnessing or experiencing some form of violence – be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in three women globally experiences intimate partner violence and physical and sexual violence from a non-partner. For all our collective tendencies to showcase progressiveness regarding caste (that too only in recent years despite the system existing for over two thousand years), violence against women and children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has hiked at an alarming 15.55% in the space of three years, according to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs. Human Rights Watch recently documented the fuelling of country-wide and already pervasive Islamophobia in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Campaign Against Torture documented 1,731 custodial deaths in 2019.
How have we reached this point – where there is no respite from violence? This normalised everyday violence does not materialise out of thin air – it’s a toxicity-filled process that we have been conditioned into since childhood. We have collectively grown up with the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. It is expected that violence goes hand-in-hand with parental upbringing and the showcasing of discipline, or even getting a simple message across. Every person we encounter in our lifetimes has witnessed, experienced, ignored, survived and/or committed violence. In this day and age, to live a violence-free existence, one has to find the corporeal equivalent of a free-floating bubble of abstraction. Simply put: this plane of existence is fictional.
We have collectively grown up with the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. It is expected that violence goes hand-in-hand with parental upbringing and the showcasing of discipline, or even getting a simple message across.
There are multiple factors that contribute to violence becoming an immutable part of everyday life. Some of these entail state-sanctioned violence trickling down to our interpersonal relationships; the graphic portrayal and even lauding of violence courtesy of the media and pop culture; and a judicial system with a poor justice dispensing rate and traumatic courtroom processes. Let us examine four elements (among many) of interpersonal violence and how they lead to violence becoming a naturalised part of society.
A deeply entrenched system of impunity is a fertile breeding ground for interpersonal violence. Outside of socio-cultural sanction of violence and its enablement, even the justice system fails when it comes to redressal against multiple forms of violence. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, nearly 88% of all sexual assault cases across Indian courts in 2017 were pending resolution; and a Plain Facts analysis estimated that 99% of sexual assault cases in India go unreported. A study by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation found that four survivors of child sexual violence are denied justice because of insufficient evidence on a daily basis.
Simply put, perpetrators of violence get away with it. There is no concrete system of consequence and accountability set in place that will enable perpetrators to stop and think twice about what follows their actions. Without accountability, there is absolutely no scope for diminishing and ultimately eradicating the culture of violence. Let alone possible fear of repercussions, this cornucopia of failed legal processes further emboldens perpetrators. Acts of interpersonal violence are socially, culturally and legally embedded and send a message to society in general that such acts are both permissible and inevitable. State and society are not just failing to hold perpetrators accountable, but are also encouraging them.
The bystander effect
It is not just the lack of justice that enables impunity and solidifies a culture of interpersonal violence. What also needs to be called into question is the role that witnesses in such incidents play. In 2012, a teenaged girl in Guwahati was molested by a large group of men while passers-by looked on, looked away or recorded the incident. A few months ago, a woman was publicly stabbed to death in Delhi’s Budh Vihar – footage of the incident showed two people casually strolling by as if nothing was happening. Incidents of harassment and assault occur in full public view and the lack of response from passers-by lets this macabre process play out, even thrive.
The irony is that the very presence of onlookers diminishes the possibility of intervention because each passer-by assumes that somebody else will help. In India, there is an underlying normative assumption of not interfering in matters deemed “private”. From a young age, we are conditioned into thinking that one must not meddle in another person’s affairs. The irony is that the act of minding one’s own business has a moral clause attached but no exhortation to prevent or curb an act of violence. And then there is sheer indifference.
However, it is not always indifference that fuels the lack of initiative by bystanders. Many are held back by fear and lack of awareness. A study conducted by Breakthrough India found that 45.4% of respondents had witnessed violence against women in public spaces but failed to intervene because they just did not know what to do, found themselves worrying about their own safety or about being dragged into legal hassles.
From a young age, we are conditioned into thinking that one must not meddle in another person’s affairs. The irony is that the act of minding one’s own business has a moral clause attached but no exhortation to prevent or curb an act of violence.
Assertion of power dynamics
Violence as an act is not always emotionally driven. Often, it’s a premeditated or entitlement-fuelled act to show the victim/survivor their “place” and to drive home that the perpetrator is more powerful and hence superior, be it interpersonal violence premised on caste, gender, race, ableism, and so on. This imbalance of power goes by the name of inequality – which continues to give rise to even more violence and discriminatory norms and attitudes. The more this inequality grows, acts of violence to maintain this hierarchy by those who possess this power also increase. The disproportionately powerful will resort to any means to hold on to whatever privileges they have and suppress those who question or counter them.
Power-driven violence then goes on to create a culture of inequity and corruption, especially when it comes to the allocation of resources – be it shelter, food, healthcare, education, employment, and the like. A report, “Quest for Justice”, by the National Dalit Movement for Justice revealed that crime against Dalits increased by six percent between 2009 and 2018. This inequality is socio-culturally corrosive and creates rifts between the powerful and the powerless – giving rise to situations of conflict and depriving them of opportunities where they can arrive at a solution based on equity. There is a vicious cycle in place here where the violence inflicted by the disproportionately powerful further marginalises and disenfranchises the already powerless, who in turn are left with no bargaining power to negotiate a safer and violence-free situation for themselves.
The internalisation of violence by the victim/survivor
When placed in the stranglehold of normalised interpersonal violence, the victim/survivor is subject to a process of conditioning where they affirm negative stereotypes about themselves as deserving of the violence, with acts of interpersonal violence being the perpetrator’s ‘right’. The day-to-day infliction of violence alters the victim/survivor’s emotional and cognitive attributes to the point of succumbing, accepting and then colluding with the everyday patterns of interpersonal violence.
This normalisation continues to entrench itself by convincing the victim/survivor that the perpetrator’s actions were justified. The victim/survivor’s sense of reality and self-preservation are completely undermined. The internalisation of interpersonal violence reaches a point where they no longer defend themselves, enable the perpetrator even more and they continue inflicting these acts of violence on others and themselves as well.
Power-driven violence then goes on to create a culture of inequity and corruption, especially when it comes to allocation of resources – be it shelter, food, healthcare, education, employment, and the like.
Geraldine Moane, an Irish feminist scholar of psychology and critical liberation theory, discussed the psychology of internalised oppression in her book, Gender and Colonialism: A psychological analysis of oppression and liberation. She explains internalised oppression as a state and an action. She also says there are four dynamic areas of our psychological functioning that are affected by internalising oppression that is inflicted on us daily: self and identity, emotions, mental health and interpersonal relationships. These areas do not function independently of one another – when one is impacted, it affects the other three as well.
The internalisation of violence is one of the (many) dynamic ways in which interpersonal violence deeply entrenches itself in our collective psyche and cultural norms. It’s present in everyday behaviour, inflicted by the perpetrator and enabled by the victim/survivor – consciously, against their will. Impunity, bystander apathy and power dynamics are at least widely talked about as thematic fields – we are in dire need of increasing discourse about the process and state of internalised violence and how it transforms us and forms a new ‘normal’ that is extremely volatile.
This was a long-drawn-out way of saying we are doomed – unless we work on building even more discourse and direct-action plans about combatting interpersonal violence, after understanding just how deeply enmeshed it is within our socio-cultural norms. The universal truth about violence is that it is a learned process and state. Our beliefs, practices, values and more legitimise the conception and infliction of interpersonal violence.
Violence is a man-made process and state of being and we have let it thrive to a point where it occupies its own plane of existence, freely flowing between the structural and interpersonal of our ethos. We have been reduced to the point where we do not control violence anymore. It controls us. We are merely the vessels and tools for its existence.