17 Feb Why is South Asia So Violent?
Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi
By Anjum Altaf
A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever.
The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape every 22 minutes in India and Delhi is becoming infamous as the rape capital of the world.
What we are talking of here is not ideological or political violence but structural violence built into the patterns of everyday life – the type of violence that people in positions of political, social and moral authority have to be pushed to react to. What accounts for this structural violence in South Asia?
My explanation turns on the selection of comparators. Is South Asia today more violent than the American South at the time of the slave economy or Europe in the age of serfdom? I would argue not, leaving to the reader the burden of looking up the extent and type of social violence that was the fate of slaves and serfs, men, women and children, in those times.
If South Asia is not any more socially violent than the comparator societies I have mentioned then it must share some societal attribute with them. And, indeed, it does. That attribute is the stark inequality in the distribution of power, the existence of a deeply hierarchical social formation in which whatever laws exist are designed by the powerful to maintain their power over the powerless. Recall, that in the American South it was a crime for a slave to learn to read or write.
I grant this may be hard to concede for some but bear with me. Walk with me into any upper or upper middle class South Asian home and watch the transformation in the bearing of the lord and lady of the house. The most polite couples amongst peers at the club would interact with the domestic servants in a completely different manner. It would be as if they had not contracted with but owned the latter. Yes, they would be most kind at times, taking care of the extended family if need be, but also violent and abusive and exploitative as a matter of course and entitlement. Little master, all of fifteen years old, home on vacation from school in England, would yell at a sixty-year old orderly to shut up and get out of the house with nary a contrary word from the parents.
All this is not confined within the borders of South Asia itself. Abuse of domestic staff, sexual, physical and financial, is not unheard of in homes of South Asian diplomats and bureaucrats in the most developed capitals of the world. This structural violence stems from the sense of privilege and entitlement that accompanies growing up powerful in deeply hierarchical societies.
There is a tremendous amount of accumulated, pent up violence in such societies that manifests itself in individual incidents so numerous that they become part of the pattern of everyday life – did anyone really care how many slave women were raped every day or slave men lynched or how many young girls the lord of the manor took to bed in France?
This level of violence remains a part of life in hierarchical societies till it is squeezed out by some cathartic readjustment of power – the Civil War in America or the social revolutions in Europe, for example. Once the vertical divisions of society have been leveled by the movements for social equality, and laws are much less an instrument of the powerful for the domination of the powerless, the prevalence of structural violence is drastically diminished. Not that it disappears altogether – the Dominique Strauss Kahn’s remain as a reminder of what life must have been like in those earlier times.
There has been no such cathartic squeezing out of structural violence in South Asia – the deep hierarchical divisions just wear the façade of representative systems. South Asia is perhaps the most socially divided region in the world today and within South Asia India has to contend with divisions not just of class but also of caste.
It is no surprise that representative political systems in South Asia do as little as possible to mitigate the cruelties and injustices of structural violence. The power of the vote, diminished by the power of money, provides only slow inroads into the bastions of privilege and generates its own frustrations both for those who sense a loss and those impatient for the gains. No doubt these frustrations and the ills of consumerism have added to the incidents of social violence – the frequency of rapes in India has been increasing over the years – but the additions have built upon a very high and unremarked base level.
The road to social justice for all in South Asia is going to be long and tortured. The power of the law has to be wrested from the powerful. And many of those unaffected by the violence have to break rank by reflecting on how they may be contributing to it without actually doing any wrong themselves. There are some hopeful, albeit very partial, signs of progress from India.
Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.