Beyond Grief

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden.

Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering?

I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how.

Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle. It is too easy in that it asks nothing meaningful of us.

Grief will not undo anything but something beyond grief might break the chain of tragedies that have come to dominate our lives. Grief is not the end of reckoning; it can only be the beginning of a quest to bring honor to the lives that have been lost.

Our collective outrage needs to be transformative, leading first and foremost to reflection and a dialogue with ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the nature of violence, its place in our lives, and in our society.

I worry when I see cries for vengeful action. They suggest we are not really opposed to violence, just to violence by people we don’t like. Given a chance to inflict it ourselves, we would have no qualms if we felt it was needed for the success of our cause. Every cause has its adherents and believers and therein lie the seeds of strife without end.

It seems that violence is deeply embedded in our psyches. Otherwise reasonable people have little hesitation in wanting to make examples of those they disapprove of – stringing people upside down or lining them against a wall to be shot are commonplace off-the-cuff recommendations.

This easy relationship with violence stems from our lack of regard for civil rights, a notion that seems remarkably foreign to us. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that every individual, even one accused of a crime, has, or ought to have, a modicum of civil rights. Persons accused and convicted of wrongs can only be assigned penalties commensurate with their transgressions. They cannot be made ‘horrible’ examples to deter others from committing crimes and we cannot cheer or rejoice in such spectacles.

But it seems we believe very strongly in the redemptive power of punishment and in the locus of human body as the most appropriate site for that punishment. This is quite obvious in the way we deal with women who defy patriarchal norms, in the fashion we discipline children who displease parents, in the manner we reprimand administrative staff in offices, and in how we berate servants in the home. Verbal or physical abuse is considered necessary to keep ‘them’ in their place – ‘them’ being anyone who deigns to defy our desires.

We will not be able to limit violence till we internalize the norm of individual civil rights and accept the sanctity of the human body. The other’s body is off-limits, at all times, and under all circumstances except with consent or when the law sanctions the contrary in self-defense. The temptation to punish all those we don’t like needs to be purged. That we can oppose but not eliminate is a profound lesson that remains to be learnt in our social and political lives.

We will also not be able to limit violence till we come to terms with the fact that there are no ‘others,’ that every human life is equally valuable and equally inviolate. I am saddened to recall that December 16 marks another tragedy in which the lives of students were also extinguished in just as evil a manner in a university in another part of our country. On our side, there was very little grief, not enough condemnation, and no reflection whatsoever.

Why? If our reflection can force us to honestly answer that question today, we will have taken a small step towards a less violent society.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on January 24, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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  • Fatin Nawaz
    Posted at 16:32h, 01 February Reply

    I think we vow to remember because we feel there is nothing we can do. I know that may not be true, but I remember at that moment everything seemed hopeless. It wasn’t a ‘fight’ against a group, it was a fight against a system that has existed for a long, long time.

    I know I’ll forget, but I still feel the need to say that I will not forget because it seems so preposterous that I could forget something so awful. I don’t know what I want to achieve by remembering, but I don’t wish for violence of any kind. I just don’t wish to be as jaded as I am.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 08:03h, 02 February

      Fatin: To say that one will not forget knowing one would is problematic, you will agree. It would be better to say “we will overcome” even though we might not be able to remember any particular event. Then we have to put our heads together and figure out what we need to do collectively to overcome. Perhaps the first thing we need is an explanation for why what is happening is taking place. When we put our minds to work we might feel less jaded.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 14:32h, 07 February Reply

    At EPW, Vinay Tandon has posted a comment on the article and I have replied to it. I am cross-posting both here:


    Very well thought. But what to do……..

    “Apno se bair rakhna seekha tune ‘kis se’?
    Jung-o-jadal sekhaya vaiz ko bhi khuda ne.”
    (with apologies to Iqbal)


    Vinay: It has changed in other places. Philip Roth reflects on the “peace and safety” in a small town in one of his short stories (Eli, The Fanatic): “It was what his parents had asked for in the Bronx, and his grandparents in Poland, and theirs in Russia or Austria, or wherever else they fled to or from… And now they had it – the world was at last a place for families, even Jewish families.”

    It can happen if we make it happen.

  • nazishrizwan
    Posted at 15:27h, 09 February Reply

    I read ‘beyond grief’ and as it is said, the truth is bitter. All of what you said one has to agree with, we hate those who committed this barbaric act and want them dead without any second thought. But my question is, what must that second thought be? It is indeed a completely foreign idea to us that they (the killers) should have any rights!
    How does one embed such a feeling inside themselves and convince others to believe that? I cannot fathom having any bit of mercy for the persons who did this.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:12h, 10 February

      Nazish: “What must that second thought be?” That’s probably the most perceptive question to ask in this context. I must confess that I was not certain myself and your question forced me to think about it.

      One way to look at it would be purely pragmatic. We know that a response of vengeance is unlikely to restore the kind of peaceful society we desire. Look at the American War on Terror since 2001 – with all the firepower and drone technology, it has not been able to prevent the spread of violence. So, while an emotion of vengeance will satisfy some primal instincts, they would probably take us even further away from where we want to go.

      Conceptually, we can choose the filter through which we look at the perpetrators of such violence. Vengeance is a possibility, but one can also choose the perspective of pity – thinking of what is it that leads human beings to commit acts like these? Or, one of concern – thinking of what is it in our society that gives rise to such acts?

      These are analytical perspectives – at least they force us to think about what is happening instead of clouding our minds with the haze of hate. Our society was not like this 25 years ago – So what might have changed that has brought us to this pass? And what needs to change going forward that would reverse the damage? This kind of thinking would also suggest what the rest of us might have done wrong and what we need to do now. As I mentioned in the closing paragraph, we were wrong not to raise our voices about what happened in Dhaka and we are paying the price for that now. Going forward, we have to acknowledge that we condemn violence, not just the violence of the other side. This is a very big lesson to absorb and convince others of.

      At the same time, the fact that we abjure the emotion of vengeance does not mean that we forgive the perpetrators of violence. They have committed a crime and must be dealt with accordingly. But remember that all criminals have the right to lawyers and fair processes. They have the right not to be tortured. If they did not have that right, we would have no basis to protest what the US has been doing to its detainees in Bagram and Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo. If the US had treated the 9/11 perpetrators as criminals, our history would have been very different today.

      Thanks for initiating a very useful discussion. Two earlier posts will prove useful in thinking further on the topic:

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