culture of violence

Opinion: Ankit Saxena’s murder is tragic but it does not warrant protest marches from liberals

Personalised violence cannot be equated with systematic, normalised violence.

Every now and then, there is an exception to the Great Indian Obsession with things mathematical and scientific. I refer to the well-established calculus of response whenever there is an incident that involves Hindus and Muslims. The tabularisation goes something like this: if the so-called liberals march and hold protest meetings after a Muslim is killed by a Hindu, then they should do the same in case the opposite happens. The argument also goes: just as they interrogate Hindu opinion in the case of a Muslim killing, so they should ask questions of Muslims in the obverse case. But the family of Ankit Saxena, a young man whose life was cut short by the blind rage of human senselessness, have bucked this calculus. They have spurned offers of assistance by politicians and others to cast the tragedy as an instance of Hindu-Muslim violence.

In their hour of unimaginable grief, they have refused to be swayed by an imagination of good and evil whose key aim is the persistent pursuit of social disharmony in the cause of political gain.

It has been reported that members of Saxena’s extended family have publicly said his murder by the family members of a young women he intended to marry should not be seen as communal. Rather, they have appealed, the murder should be seen as a tragedy at a personal level, a disaster visited upon one family by the mindless actions of another.

It would, of course, have been easy for them to align with a political cause and, perhaps, gain some material benefit as well as the gratitude of some very important people. They did not. And by refusing to let their personal suffering be the stage for enacting cynical political dramas, they served an important pedagogical function. They told us that the calculus of public rage ought to be reconsidered so that we better understand the relations between action and reaction. They told us that we must not be threatened into becoming robots with a mechanical understanding of outrage.

A human understanding of outrage against violence – marching and protesting, say – must direct our attention to situations created by systematic, planned and normalised violence. It should enable us to realise the difference between personalised violence and the kind of violence that requires one community to be seduced into thinking of another as the enemy. Grief deserves an answer, but it cannot be the same under different circumstances. This only serves to make banal the nature of empathy and political outrage. We should, of course, be outraged by Saxena’s murder. Further, it should be deeply concerning that those who murdered him did so because they did not want a member of their family marrying a person from another faith. But this in itself does not constitute communal violence, as Saxena’s family has pointed out.

Communalism as context

Preparations to unleash communal violence – for it is almost never spontaneous, but results from careful groundwork and calculations regarding costs and benefits – damage the social fabric. A Muslim family murdering the Hindu suitor of their daughter damages individual lives. Moreover, and perhaps ironically, while the act may be motivated by the horror of having to welcome someone from another religion into the family, it may not necessarily be inspired by a dread of that religion. There are many Muslims who cannot imagine marrying a Hindu and many Hindus who would be just as resistant to the idea that one of their own might marry a Muslim. This, however, does not mean such Muslims and Hindus hate the other community. In many parts of India, these communities exist peacefully, recognising the right of the other to its own lifeways.

Communalism is the context in which the right of another community to exist is questioned. Identities are complex: I may not wish to enter into certain kinds of relationships with you but that does not mean I wish to destroy your identity and seek to subsume it within my own. We know each other’s boundaries and occasionally wander across them and relate to one another in some contexts, but not in others. This maynot be the ideal situation for a multi-religious society but it is how most lives in such societies are lived. Historically, too, the situation has not been much different.

This, then, is what the Saxena family’s reaction tells us in all its undeniable tragedy: in their sorrow, they seek no false comfort of hating that which they can tolerate.

This is also why we must resist calls to hit the streets in protest against the murder of Saxena as an act of Hindu-Muslim violence. It cheapens pathos by casting it as part of an abstract drama of identity, rather than the site of personal grief. And it sets rolling preparations for greater tragedies.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.