Are Some State and Non-State Actions Evil?

In a number of preceding posts we have discussed how best to characterize the repressive actions of the Indian state in its dealings with the tribal population. The ensuing discussion has fanned out to include the violent actions of Naxalites and Islamic groups. What motivates these state and non-state actors and how do they themselves understand and rationalize their actions?

In one of the posts we had presented a hypothesis about the Indian state: that it saw itself as a ‘modernizing’ state that felt it necessary to propel the ‘backward’ elements of society into the ‘modern’ age, against their will if necessary, if such action would advance ‘national’ progress. It was a ‘utilitarian’ state that viewed human lives in the calculus of gains and losses and was not averse to imposing costs if, in its view, the net benefits would be positive. And, it was ‘colonial’ state in the sense that it had inherited this notion of ‘manifest destiny’ from that of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ it had fought so passionately to displace. We had termed this the ultimate victory of Lord Macaulay.

In the discussion we had also raised the question of how it was possible for citizens to allow their elected representatives to undertake acts of injustice that they would not carry out as individuals, a phenomenon captured by the title of Reinhold Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society. Of course, this would be easier to explain if influential elements of the public shared the vision of the state; this does seem to be the case in India with respect to the development of tribal resources.

A more difficult case to explain would be the public and state reaction in Pakistan to the recent violence against the Ahmadis. Would citizens or state representatives legitimize such an action at the individual level? If not, why has there been such limited condemnation of an act of such gross violence. How is such silence to be explained? Is it latent sympathy for the act of violence that accords with a framework that can justify it, as long as it is someone else that perpetrates the violence?

We need a general framework to address these questions and a review (The Faces of Evil by Julian Baggini) of recently published books on the subject of evil provides us with a good starting point. I will extract the relevant sections from the review and hope that we can elaborate on the ideas and contextualize them with reference to the situation in South Asia.

The review begins by stating the obvious: “even though evil as an idea [in the theological sense] may have been out of fashion, as a reality it has never gone away. Attempts to do without the word in the face of genocide, torture and flagrant disregard for life, collapse into euphemistic absurdity.” It then asks the critical question: “But what exactly is evil?”

The definition that I liked disaggregates evil into four categories as follows:

Demonic Evil: This is “the activity of doing evil precisely because it’s evil”. “This is how the diabolical villains of Hollywood films are presented, but [the author argues] it is a cartoon caricature rather than a paradigm of evil.”

Instrumental Evil: This arises when we “do something evil, well aware that it’s evil, in order to accomplish some other goal”. “As fundamentalists show, there is nothing more dangerous than a person convinced of the righteousness of his cause, for then any means might justify the end. Even love, when excessive, can motivate abject wickedness.”

Idealistic Evil: This is “doing evil in the belief that it is in fact good.” “Witch trials and crusades are two obvious examples, but genocides also often fall into this camp. Rwanda’s Hutus were urged to massacre the Tutsi “cockroaches” because when the enemy is vermin, it is positively good to cut them down. Likewise, Jews were not just killed by the Nazis as an unfortunate means to the end of more lebensraum – they were also seen by the Nazis as a sub-human stain on the world.”

Stupid Evil: This results not from a lack of intelligence but is rather “a form of thoughtlessness.” “It is an idea most closely associated with political theorist Hannah Arendt who [is however] more famous for the phrase “the banality of evil”.”

The reviewer goes on to claim that “stupid evil is perhaps the most common variety” and then asks “but how can anyone be so blind to the obvious horror of flagrant wrongdoing?” In his opinion “Psychologists have the best answers to this – and, as answers go, they’re remarkably mundane: habituation by increments, socialisation, distancing and divided responsibility can all lead previously decent people to do terrible things.”

Does this classification help us in our attempt to understand some of the actions of state and non-state actors in South Asia and the responses of civil society to them? If so, does it also suggest how we might go about addressing the prevalence of ‘evil’ in our region. I recommend reading the review. It ends with the following sentence: “The fact that evil exists is not so much a metaphysical challenge as it is a moral and political one.”


  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:12h, 06 June Reply

    I think the Indian middle class that I encounter mostly can be placed in the Idealistic Evil category. They have been made to believe some dogma about India and the State which they worship and are unable to intellectually overcome. I will place myself in the Stupid Evil category. I happily escape the pangs of guilt I experience from what I know about the suffering in the world and how my actions possibly contribute to it by indulging in the petty materialistic opulence of the world I live in.

  • a ercelan
    Posted at 19:42h, 08 June Reply

    the political challenge i.e. of collective action is most important to overcome the current imbalance of evil in public action. tragically, no political party is immune and hence unable to mobilise e.g. in favour of ahmedis as equal citizens.
    i was shocked to read (ahmed rashid) that even khudai khidmatgar ghaffar khan devalued the ahmedi community as the creation of british imperialism — as if jinnah arose in some vacuum!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:53h, 09 June Reply

      Ercelan: We have to be careful in the interpretation. I have not read the Ahmed Rashid piece you refer to and would be surprised if the claim is substantiated. The period leading up to partition was very political and the lines were drawn amongst Muslim groups between those who favored and opposed the division of India. Ghaffar Khan was pro-Congress and the Ahmedis were pro-Muslim League. In this rivalry Ghaffar Khan’s labeling the Ahmedis as well as the Muslim League a creation of British imperialism could be understood. I have not read of controversies at that time amongst Muslims as to who was theologically purer than the other which is why I am skeptical that Ghaffar Khan could have implied that. It is quite reasonable to expect that British imperialism would try and divide Muslims politically but this need not imply any theological judgments.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 10:41h, 12 June Reply

    Today, There is an emerging middle class, resistant to a democratization that might jeopardize the social and economic privileges they enjoy in an undemocratic system. I agree with Vinod that it falls in the Idealistic Evil category. Like the capture of land for SEZ doesn’t bother them as it does not affect their status quo. They see any step of government or an individual through the eye of development and patriotism. Jet Airways employees firing in october 2008 has captured more attention than countless death of farmers in the country from past years. The rise of evil is more dangerous in Idealistic mode rather than Stupid. As it created the dogma and set the path for stupid evil to follow.

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