Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to refer to the crimes committed by Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who she argued was neither a “monster” nor an anti-Semite but acted from the non-ideological compulsions of careerism and obedience.
“Good can be radical,” Arendt argued. “Evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet – and this is its horror – it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think.”
There is another dimension to this. While acts of violence could be banal, the silent support for such acts is often the result of a well-thought-out effort to outsource the utility that violence brings with it. This is true of the violence we have been witnessing in India in the last five years: mob lynchings across India, the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir, Dalits being assaulted in several parts of the country. Even the growing use of abusive language and everyday humiliations for people from marginal and minority groups have all received tacit consent.
In a great many instances, the people who perpetrate these acts of violence are not the objects of loathing but actually become the silent recipients of collective gratitude. The acknowledgement and even celebration of such individuals – garlanding them when they are out on bail or draping their coffins with the national flag – would not be possible without the confidence that their actions are viewed by the wider community as gestures to be revered. This gratitude springs from the fact that those on whose behalf the violence has been carried out have been spared of the burden of guilt.
Though the process of outsourcing guilt is well underway, it isn’t clear how wide and deep the circle of consent is. What is a clear marker and evidence of this? Will a change in the electoral fortunes of Hindutva groups signal the withdrawal or hibernation of this consent? What will arouse the collective conscience?
In 2015, when I visited the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, I chatted with a young curator at the museum attached to the memorial. I posed a question I had long wondered about: how did Germans view the children with disabilities who were executed by the Nazis? I could bring myself to understand why the Nazis persecuted Jewish people and Communists. But how did German people accept the idea of killing their own children with disabilities?
The curator said that their research revealed that there was silent consent from the parents of the children who were executed. The killers were seen not as monsters but as saviours. They gave the parents relief from life-long suffering, for which the parents could not shrug off responsibility without suffering guilt. The killers fulfilled a silent desire that the parents could not have accepted even to themselves, said the curator.
In today’s India, this attitude seems to be reflected in the way violence is being normalised. The frequent incidents of violence against Muslims, Dalits, women, migrants, the urban poor and students has silent consent in varying degrees. Fear alone cannot explain this consent. Acts of honouring and celebrating those responsible for such acts of violence – including handing them huge victories when they stand for elections and then selecting them for ministerial berths – cannot be explained by fear. It is an affirmation of the violence. It is a sense of gratitude towards those who have taken it upon themselves to soil themselves with blood as an act of sacrifice for the common good, an act necessary to silence those threatening our collective existence and the sanctity of our identity.
Of course, consent for violence does not necessarily mean there is a will for violence. But the organised vigilantes and various kinds of extremist rightwing outfits are closing the gap, and providing the will to actualise the violence that has resided in the silent recesses of a collective fantasy.
One disquieting example of this trend in recent years has been the unabashed reverence in some quarters for Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse. To these people, Godse carried out a selfless act and allowed himself to be considered a criminal in order to save the nation from a man who was encouraging a group of aggressors, placing in peril the very existence of the Hindu community.
Germany learnt it the hard way and kept the memory of the Holocaust alive in the hope that it will not be repeated. They had seen it close enough to realise that slipping back is not an impossibility if evil is so banal, that violence of various kinds can not only have consent but that the perpetrators can come to be revered.
The connection between violence and guilt needs to be robustly debated in India, even as the brutality needs to be condemned. Consent for violence needs to be fought as vigorously as violence itself.