ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Violence qua Intentional Harm

The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines within Indian Society by Neera Chandhoke, New Delhi: Aleph, 2021; pp 288, `699.

The book under review—The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines within Indian Society—invites public deliberations on violence to arrive at a non-violent political community. Appropriately, the book keeps it free from academic jargon. However, in place of an easy read, the book offers a thinking readIt aids to decipher epistemological advancement on “violence qua intentional harm” and ethical reasoning for critical engagement with people. After that, it explores five realms of violence in modern India.

Constitution of Violence

“The violence in our bones” is a metaphor for recognising the omnipresence of violence while construing violence. “Impulse to violence” and “act of violence’’ are to be differentiated for unravelling the transition to discern the catalyst that is located or provided by the ideological system like race, caste, and communalism. Patriarchy, homophobia, and ethnic rivalry are significant stimuli. One needs to understand “they” for ideological performance and controlling violent acts. Violence may be random/spontaneous, or organised. Moreover, in the age of ­violence, not recognising or maintaining studied “silence is acquiescence” (p x). Neera Chandhoke argues that “the age of violence” is based on several discards. Non-violence in ancient India should have been recognised as a critical creed of Indian civilisation. Instead, developments like gendered violence backed by the culture of silence, government inaction, and the lack of representation became normalised, further causing two risks for women, that is, vicious and perverse stereotyping and harm infliction and dimi­nished public eye (p xviii).

Ideally, democracy and violence should have been an antithetical relation. The universal adult franchise rem­ains a transformative impact. The book also considers the presence of violence in non-state and state actors or ­inter-communities per se. “… Violence does not hurt the powerful … Violence harms ordinary people” (p xxii). In a democratic format, violence as means is not fruitful. Despite the contradiction between the two, there is a coexistence of both. Despite the externality of violence to ourselves, violence has produced disastrous consequences. It is a microcosm of

a democratic deficit, of unrepresentative and unresponsive democracies, of injustice, of the failure of the state to control dominant groups, and of the readiness of the state to use violence against its own people. (p xxvi)

Being a microcosm of a slew of empirical and substantive landscapes, conceptually, it lacks clarity for a concrete analysis. The maximalist take on violence does not help much. The conceptualisation of structural violence is part of this category. However, it is imprecise and vague due to no definition of violence. One lacuna in structural violence is the non-recognition of intention as central to violence.

When it comes to the state and its personnel, the detachment of harm from intention and responsibility bears serious implications. State officials are practically liberated from complicity, and thereby responsibility (p xxxv). But stru­ctural violence underplays crucial factors of intention, responsibility and agency. (p xxxvi)

The discrete virtues of a minimalist theory of violence is preferred and req­uired. The violence’s vagueness is resol­ved here by defining it as intentional harm. Intentional harm brings back the focus on voluntary action, choice of action, and moral responsibility. “The belief that intention defines ­violence presumes voluntary action insofar as I had a choice between doing and not doing harm. I, or you, the state or non-state actor, choose do harm, and this makes each of us morally responsible” (p xi). “Central to the concept of violence is intention” (p xii).

The book is an essential source for the eclectic approach of combining social sciences and literature. Definitional asp­ects are taken care of by the lingua franca of social sciences. The emphasis on conceptual clarity begets the undeniability of social sciences. The place of understanding of feeling, pain, anxiety, disgust, and remorse is filled with poets and literati. This is an effective use of exp­lanation and understanding. Defining and unravelling moments of violence is eff­ec­tively used by way of the rigour of social sciences. In understanding the outcome of violence, poetry and literature become fellow travellers due to sheer intangibility and possession of non-empirical language.

Perhaps it is only poets, with their sweeps of imaginaries and their ability to reach into the depths of human consciousness and wri­ters, with dexterous deployment of searing idioms and phrases, who can capture the intensity and the violence of human emotions and the impact of partition on the lives of ordinary. (p 28)

Partition as Governmentalisation

Chandhoke’s partition analysis (Chapter 1: “India’s Partition”) can be read as governmentalisation. British colonialism attemp­ted to control India’s past by interpretation and future by thinking. Education and knowledge control was necessary for interpretation and thinking. Indian laws and scriptures were read as per cultural and intellectual domination. Homogenisation and standardisation of laws, texts, and religions were common recourse for defining the definite meaning (“metaphysical, upper-caste Sanskritised, and abstract” [p 7]). Census played a significant role in the polarisation of society by way of politicising religion. This led to the consequence in the form of partition. The division of rel­igion as faith and religion as a power politics was fatal. Gendered violence like abducting women was related to development. Three forgotten lessons of the partition bloodshed are critical. First, using religion for the justification of action is a serious mistake. Second, splitting a country is a tragedy, but violent rupture among people is an unparallel tragedy due to the loss of syncretic tradition. Third, painful memory does not descend into the trough of violence. One has to overcome power/governmentalisation for non-binary analysis of society.

Legacy as a Continuum

Legacy as a continuum (Chapter 2: “The Legacy of Communal Conflict”) is a significant way to understand communalism. Against the instrumentalist school (use of religion by politicians), the primodi­alist school (role of colonial legacy-led fissures) offers a better explanation. During the freedom struggle, Congres’s position of communalism significantly diff­ered in three ways from colonial admi­nistration: both communities were guilty of communal sentiments; state neutrality is crucial; group rights for minorities were crucial for the realisation of individual rights. The sociological to political transformation using religion as identity culminates into state power capture.

Religion as faith and as politics are two different categories. First, community as a social category is diffe­rent from the community as politics for controlling resources. Indeed religion as politics is violent. In place of religion, exp­loitation of religion is crucial to ­understanding communalism. The reco­urse and resource to communalism cannot be delinked from colonialism. Those who are reaping benefits are furthering the agenda of colonial policies. Chandhoke reminds us of two contracts, that is, from the government to the Constitution and people to people social contracts, which were symbolically signed on 26 December 1950. Creating a political consensus is crucial through reasoning, persuasion, and dialogue.

Undemocratic Everydayness

Caste discrimination must be construed as undemocratic everydayness (Chapter 3: “Caste-based Violence”). Chandhoke discusses caste discrimination in the context of Dalits who suffer threefold injustices in the form of extreme econo­mic deprivation, institutionalised humiliation, and the lack of voice of participation. The use of Vedic tradition by nati­onalist leaders without realising its consolidation as Brahminical superiority and caste system resulted in the unsoli­cited legitimising act. There has been a rejection of diversity and dissenting tradition within the Indian philosophical tradition. Fascination with metaphysical intent and content has distracted us from social opp­re­ssion and power. Undemocratic everydayness for Dalits is in the form of unt­hinkable, terrible, and trivial violence. This undemocratic everydayness is exte­nded to urban spheres. The severe discrimination in the job market is well documented. Material deprivation and humiliation are part of the everydayness. Violence as retaliation was also directed against them due to implementing a slew of affirmative actions. The collective memory of untouchability, resentment due to affirmative actions and resistance by Dalits are met with violence as retaliation. Private spaces are more discriminatory than public spaces.

Democratic Deficit

Chapters 4 and 5 (“India’s Many Insurgencies Kashmir” and “The North East: A Thousand Armed Rebellions”) must be recognised empirically and normatively. Fathoming unjust laws in a ­delinked manner concerning the reproduction of militancy should be a sine qua non priority. Violence precipitates violence. The subsumption of the ahistorical narrative over the actual and living histories of people invites a counterfactual effect. Violence cannot be bifurcated and prioritised either based on the state or non-state actors. The choice between surveillance-led system/exceptional laws system and extreme religious-based ide­ntities or mobilisations must be ipso facto ruled out.

Undelivered democracy and justice invite a web of complexities. Identification of problems as political problems is crucial, which demands political resolutions. Stability per se is not outstanding virtue sans democracy and justice. Two-dimensional violence is problematic, leading to unpredictability and causing massive havoc in and around. This chapter highlights, among other things, three imp­ortant aspects. First, the democratic deficit is due to constant modifications of laws. Second, violence produces only vio­lence. Third, critically assessing both state and non-state actors is fundame­ntal for substantive discernment.

Violence as an Undemocratic Method

Chandhoke’s analysis of Maoist violence (Chapter 6: “Maoist Violence”) invites construal of violence as an undemoc­ratic method. Maoist violence is antithetical to democracy and people’s empowerment. The tenets of Maoists of libe­ration, equality, and justice are marred by the language of violence, targeting of innocent citizens, and delinking violence from transformative politics. The Indian deve­lopment context is skewed or undergoing in some parts of the country as primi­tive accumulation of capital. Her explanation of the six conundrums helps comprehend the paradox and limitations of violence as an undemocratic method. First, the guerrilla war against the colonial government is different from the democratically elected government. The democratic state has legitimacy in India. Second, the state’s armed might and dev­elopment initiatives provide sizeable recognition. Third, infrastructural deve­lopment makes the state reach the innermost part of India. Fourth, despite some socio-economic reforms by Maoi­sts, it is unclear whether people are persuaded, coaxed, or coerced to share the goal. Fifth, there is an uncanny resemblance between Maoist and Indian state development schemes. Six, Maoists being circled by security forces and amidst dela­yed state-led development activities focused on violence without political mobilisation. A new society is unt­hinkable without the politicisation of people. Violence defeats political objectives and only begets violence. Violence is unequal to justice.

By Way of Gandhi

Chandhoke proposes a solution to violence by way of M K Gandhi (Conclusion: “The Case against Violence”). Ethical choices become possible only when non-violence is chosen over violence. Freedom, equa­lity, and justice are feasible only by way of stability and peace. Learning from violence is crucial. Violent politics must be rejected for representative democracy. For Gandhi, violence is neither pragmatic nor productive; truth and violence are antithetical; and rejection of violence is by way of non-dualism. In place of the maxim that treating “others the way we want others to treat us,” Gandhi proposes that “what we do to others we also do to ourselves” (p 221). He also reminds us that massive violence against vulnerable sections reduces society into the consumer society. Rekindling Gandhi as a philosopher is crucial for recovering sensibilities and solidarity.

Studying Violence against Violence

This book defends the case of non-­violence meticulously while questioning the probable pores of violence. This has been done in five ways. First, the anatomy of violence is a critical category or valuable vantage point to understand the trajectory of res publica. Second, violence as an imminent category informs that violence is not waiting to happen, but it is happening in and around. Third, violence as an immanent category points out that inter-reflection and examination of our normative standard is crucial. Fourth, violence is anti-democratic. Fifth, by any standard, violence is anti-people. At the level of argument, violence as anti-democracy must be understood at the theory and practice levels. Studying violence is an archive for justice and democracy. Violence must not be judged by statist discourse, upper-caste gaze, and mainstream normalisation of communication or patriarchal gaze. Finally, violence must not be understood as a self- contained category but as a relational one. The inclusion of chapters on women and the working class would have expanded the scope of studying ­violence against violence.

In the book, central to violence is intentional harm. There is also the separation of violence and inju­stice. Many readers may interpret this notion of violence as positivist violence because non-empirical violence may be omitted in this way. At the end of the book, violence is attempted to be resol­ved through Gandhian principles. However, the Gandhian notion of violence may also include injustice (also not expressed actions) as violence. The reconciliation between these two notions of violence becomes exceptionally significant. Intentional harm is an important contribution of the book. It rejects fait accompli, which is writ large in structural theory of violence. It must be ext­ended to the realm of social injustice, patriarchal performativity, and capita­lism, which are also intentional harm, for which responsibility is long overdue. This will also help take recourse from Gandhi who redefined the notion of violence for inclusion of injustice under its ambit.1


1 According to Gandhi, “… the economic war is no better than an armed conflict … An economic war is prolonged torture. And its ravages are no less terrible than those depicted in the literature on war properly so called” (Gandhi 1969: 142).


Gandhi, M K (1969): “Non-violence—The Greatest Gorce,” The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol xxxi (1926), pp 141–43, New Delhi: Publication Division, Ministry of ­Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.


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Updated On : 18th Jul, 2022
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