It is easy to characterise the recent violence by Kanwariya – devotees of the god Shiva who undertake an annual pilgrimage to collect water from the Ganga and carry it, usually on foot, to shrines across northern India – as merely another episode of the gathering lawlessness in the republic. It is, of course, true that an atmosphere has been created where electoral politics seeks to barter in the currency of majoritarian sentiment. It is just as true that electoral politics no longer even maintains the pretence of even-handedness (which is the general rule in liberal democracies) so that the political forces in power could be held to the standards of their pretence. But it is not that the Kanwariya violence represents a major break from the past. To say we have “suddenly” become barbarians and fools is to take shelter in that most dangerous form of analysis – wishful thinking.

Firstly, while we have many kinds of public – linguistic, ethnic, religious – we hardly have any “publicness”. The closest India has come to having publicness – a situation where collective welfare is recognised above hyper-individualism – was during the freedom struggle. That too was a very tenuous form of publicness. Whatever the reasons for the lack of publicness, its everyday consequences are devastating: a society that is unable to nurture publicness cannot but expect to be in a state of infinite social haemorrhage. Have you noticed, for example, that alongside busy roads men are able to make the public disappear by simply turning their backs on it and urinating? There is no public as long as it is out of view. Have you also noticed that while personal hygiene is of great consequence to us, we maintain it by simply sweeping household garbage out on to the street? This logic of private benefit at social cost lies at the heart of the Kanwariya pilgrimage, and it is facilitated by the state.

Secondly, one of the most persistent facts of our public life concerns the various performances of masculinity. The prime minister’s 2014 election campaign relied upon it (Masculine Modi vs Impotent Manmohan), “outraging a woman’s modesty” continues to be an acceptable way of summarising women’s “essential characteristics” (virtuous women as the natural counterpart to ebullient men) and consumer-nationalism frequently peddles its wares through refurbished masculinist discourses (Hyundai’s cynical use of army values stands out). The Kanwariya are not only religious subjects, they are also men seeking to exercise masculine privilege over spaces that have historically been identified as male but appear to be fragmenting through greater presence of women. Social commentary – and legal stricture – that summarises public violence as expressions of “breakdown of law and order”, “inefficient policing”, “rowdyism” or drug-induced commotion only addresses the issue of better management of symptoms rather than reflecting upon causes.

Kanwariya target a police vehcile in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh.

‘Failure of the imagination’

It is pointless to talk about what has changed in the republic’s social and cultural life unless we also have a sense of what has remained constant. The narrative of decline does not really lead to an understanding of the actual conditions of life and the ways in which these lead to the specific forms of behaviour. It is far easier to speak of grand historical movements and political processes. However, if social behaviour could in any way be understood through them, India would be a utopia of collective life. Two aspects of our historical biography have not only remained constant but have become more deeply entrenched. One, that what really matters is private gain over public welfare. Two, the normalisation of abnormal behaviour, that which is frequently referred to as “toxic masculinity”. These apparently separate realms are, actually, related and lie at the core of our social illness.

The failure to produce contemporary publicness out of primitive individualism and the lack of interrogation of masculinities – the number of acquaintances who constantly forward military-linked videos and applaud the strapping of a civilian to the bonnet of an army vehicle is frightening – is the story of the Kanwariya violence. Is there any law and order mechanism that can put a stop to deep-rooted social pathologies? Our usual solutions for tackling social problems is to add more technology (“smart cities” will improve public life) and normalise acts of unusual behaviour (army discipline is the answer to social malfunction). Unfortunately, while it might be true that these aspects of our public life have become more prominent in recent times as spaces for other kinds of conversations have been throttled, they are not decisive breaks from our past. The greatest problem is the reliance on ways of thinking that presupposes that we “once” were a “better people”. We were never really a better people, just people who expressed violence and bigotry in other ways.

To be able to tackle the violence and bigotry of the present – which borrows from the past but takes a distinct contemporary shape – we must abandon the nostalgia for an invented past. For Kanwariya and their actions are symptoms of a present where public life is persistently expressed through the language of “to hell with the public” and toxic (but normalised) masculinities. This present is a slow accumulation of the past because at that time – in the past – we refused to deal with the root causes of a dystopic present. There is no policing that is effective against a failure of the imagination.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.