Decades of scholarship on violence in India and South Asia has tended to focus almost exclusively on incidents of dramatic communal violence. The powerful insights in the literature on communal riots notwithstanding, these moments are almost inadvertently turned into exceptional moments of extreme violence, and near-pathological cruelty.

This same view has been shared by officials and police officers for many decades. It continues to inform the longstanding policy of using live ammunition against certain “rampaging mobs” in such situations, out of a fear of rapid all out escalation. Evidently, the shadows of Partition and the fear of the “cauldron” of public anger remains a powerful motif in policing, but as we shall see, the application of force and police power on the streets of India is profoundly shaped by who makes up the crowd.

What is less well understood is just how widespread and accepted the use of violence, or the threat thereof, has become in political and public life.

In the chapters to follow, I mobilise ethnographic stories, statistics, official reports, and existing scholarship to argue that violence has moved to the centre stage of Indian public life. For many observers, commentators, and theorists of democracy in India and elsewhere, this development signals a deep problem, a deformation and a pathology that may present a danger to the future of democracy.

I agree with this assessment especially in light of the general political weaponisation of public anger as a legitimate expression of popular sentiments by the Hindu nationalist movements and its many affiliates. But this also begs the question why so many ordinary people in India today seem to either tacitly endorse, or actively participate in public violence?

From the killing crowds in Delhi in late February 2020, the gauraksha vigilantes across the country, the lynch mobs, and the millions of respectable middle-class Hindus who are thrilled that someone is “finally teaching the Muslims a lesson”.

Why is violence, or the threat of violence, so powerful and intoxicating, also for the bystanders?

Most common-sense perceptions attribute public violence to the work of young, frustrated, or deprived men for whom destruction, noise, and inflicting physical harm is a form of compensation for their own weakness and marginality in everyday life. There may be some truth to this but the best studies of violence, and its (mostly) male perpetrators, have decidedly demonstrated that perpetrators of extreme violence are rarely the most deprived or marginalised.

Rather, perpetrators are driven by the experience of power, fraternity, and freedom when engaging in violence and violent organisations. These are precisely the kind of experiences that “doing politics” (politics karna) may offer: the sense of being involved in something bigger than oneself, of being protected and acting with impunity, the enjoyment of the strange suspension of norms during riots and pogroms, or the voyeuristic pleasure of bystanders to violence who often cheer on “our boys”.

My proposition here is that the legitimacy of public violence in India today is directly connected with an experience of empowerment.

“I don’t have much but at least I know that I live in the strongest and richest country in the world,” an elderly man living in a mobile home in one of America’s poorest states told the sociologist Francesco Duina. In his book Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country, Duina shows in compelling detail that American citizenship itself gives the poorest in America and experience of power and freedom, despite their utmost marginality.

A very similar logic seems to be at work in contemporary India. It is precisely the promise of inclusion into an empowered majority, a fleeting sense of freedom when in a crowd, or a sense of having been given “permission” by one’s leaders to act, to hit, and to abuse that are the most powerful ingredients in public violence today. These ingredients are most clearly articulated in the projection of the “angry Hindu” defending an “injured majority” against its many enemies, but they are also present in other political formations as well.

Sigmund Freud’s darkest book, Civilisation and its Discontents, was written in 1930 as a commentary on the rise of fascism. Freud suggests that one of the conditions driving the support for fascism is the promise of freedom, the “permission” to act without constraints and moral injunctions.

The German title Unbehagen in der Kultur actually suggests a “discomfort” (unbehagen) with the rules of polite society. Freud argues that more civilised forms of life and sociality have produced discomfort and unhappiness because Kultur in the German sense, as civilised and refined behaviour, implies a deeper regulation of everyday conduct, and a more refined taming of the basic drives – death and eros.

The more injunctions, the more instincts curbed, the more discomfort (unbehagen) is experienced as limits on freedom. To Freud, freedom is neither a part of being civilised nor modern. Civilisation or Kultur is the art of postponing, sublimating, and refining the energy of the drives in order to put them to good use.

To Freud, unfettered freedom is in fact the very enemy of civilisation because the venal rumbles right under the thin crust of civilisation. Freud quotes Heinrich Heine’s little story to argue that cruelty and violence are inescapable companions of happiness: “Mine is a most peaceable disposition,” writes Heine.

“My wishes are humble: a small cottage with a thatched roof but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door. And if god wants to make my happiness complete he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.”

To Freud, the greatest threat to civilisation, or sociality as such, comes from the attachment to experiences of immediacy, and bodily and sentimental authenticity. Freedom could be found in two ways: either experienced as a fundamental truth – such as the Nazi romance with the immediacy of the Volk and the crowd – or, assiduously constructed as a cultural and transcendental truth acquired through processes of cultivation and restraint.

It seems to me that Freud’s reflections speak quite directly to contemporary Indian society.

Decades of economic growth and urbanisation have mobilised an enormous desire for improvement – becoming a little wealthier, more educated, more modern. For the vast majority, changes are slow and hard won. However, there are many smaller experiences of freedom and enjoyment available, from social media, movies, fashion and consumer objects, to the smaller freedoms offered by political rallies, meetings, informal activism. Among millions of young and underemployed people, it is passing time and capacity to enjoy, or enjoi in Hindi and other Indian languages, that counts as freedom.

While in the past, political activism, rallies, and demonstrations articulated political convictions in a language of attachment or self-sacrifice, today it seems that political life promises another experience of freedom to activists, patriots, and vigilantes: the freedom of enjoi and maza – to be given permission by political leaders to command the street, to attack and punish the enemies of the people and the traitors to the nation.

The Law of Force

Excerpted with permission from The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics, Thomas Blom Hansen, Aleph Book Company.