Mob Violence and Psychology
Mob violence remains a monthly occurrence in modern India; it gives the lie to our claims of political maturity and democratic development.
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article December 10 2006 www.thestatesman.net
Mob violence certainly signals collapse of the Rule of Law and absence of normal political conversation and decision-making. Mob violence in modern India remains a monthly occurrence: a child is killed by a speeding bus, the driver if he is caught is thrashed to death by a mob of onlookers and the bus burnt down; a factory closes and workers go on a rampage; a statue or political personality or religious figure is perceived to have been insulted or desecrated, and crowds take to the streets to burn vehicles and cause mayhem; a procession is said to be insulted, and rival mobs go to battle with one another. (In fact, elected legislators in Parliament and State Assemblies frequently conflate mob behaviour like slogan-shouting with political conversation itself, carrying into the House the political methods they have learned to employ outside it. And contrary to what our legislators may suppose, they do need to be constantly lectured to by the general citizenry whose paid servants they are supposed to be).
Such may be relatively simple cases to describe or diagnose. More complex cases include the deliberate burning alive of Graham Staines and his two young sons by a mob in 1999 as they slept in their vehicle in rural Orissa, or countless deeds of similar savagery during Partition and the innumerable other riots we have seen in the history of our supposedly tolerant and non-violent culture.
We are not unique in our propensity for evil. French women knitted and gossiped watching the guillotine do its bloody work during the Jacobin terror. Long before them, as the Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy reports in Faith of our fathers, Pope Gregory IX in 1233 had initiated the “Inquisition”: two anonymous witnesses could cause any person to be arrested as a heretic, tortured and then burnt alive. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII endorsed “witches” to be burnt, causing “deaths of countless thousands of harmless or eccentric women over the next 300 years. In all, as many as 25,000 people, most of them women may have been burnt as witches in Germany” alone. American history has seen countless cases of mob violence, from witch-burnings and other religious violence to cold-blooded lynching on trees of individual black men by white mobs, black mobs looting inner cities, street clashes between political groups etc. Soviet Russia and Maoist China saw systematic ideologically driven violence by Party cadres and “Red Guards” against countless individuals ~ forced to confess to imaginary misdeeds, then assaulted or shot. Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia and many other countries saw mobs attacking, dispossessing or killing individual Jews and innumerable others, again in systematic ideologically motivated pogroms. Indeed as Hannah Arendt and others have noted, the similarities between totalitarian regimes as outwardly different as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia or Communist China included the ideologically driven targeting of identifiable small minorities for systematic violence by majorities in power. Even Tony Blair’s supposedly Cool Britannia today, besides having the most notorious soccer hooligans in the world, is also a place where no individual, non-white or white, will pass a drunken mob of adolescent school-children on the streets on a Friday night without trepidation.
Every case of mob violence is different; yet what could be common is a temporary, if deliberate, suspension of the normal human sense of responsibility on part of a mob’s individual members. Reason and responsibility return if at all only after the evil has been accomplished ~ whether it is killing or assaulting someone or destroying something ~ and it can be accompanied by a sense of remorse and regret. Even where mob tyranny has been systematic, long-term, ideologically-driven and state-sponsored, as with the Inquisition or French Revolution or Nazi, Soviet or Chinese terrors, future generations look back at the past misdeeds of their ancestors and say: “That was wrong, very wrong, it should never have happened”. Moral learning does take place at some time or other, even if it is long after the evil has occurred. It is as if, when sobriety and rationality return, an individual participant in a mob realises and recognises himself/herself to have revealed a baser ignoble side which is shameful.
“Sometimes a society acts as if all power lay in the hands of the most babyish and animal members, and sometimes as if all power lay in the hands of strict old men, and sometimes it acts more as a whole ~ mostly when there’s a war on. Sometimes a man is not himself and acts as if a babyish or cunning animal had gained control ~ that’s the id ~ sometimes as if an exacting parent, a sarcastic schoolmaster, or an implacable deity possessed him ~ that’s the super-ego. Sometimes a man is more himself and acts more as a whole, a new whole which is not a combination but a synthesis of the id and the super-ego. Some are constantly at the mercy of the id, some are slaves to the super- ego, and in some first one and then the other gains an unhappy victory in a continual struggle, and in some conflict and control have vanished into cooperation…” Such was the description the Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom gave in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis in the 1940s and 1950s, when he translated into normal idiomatic language some of the difficult technical findings and theories of the mind propounded by Sigmund Freud in the previous half-century.
When the mob forms itself, its members individually choose to suppress their normal rational personalities and sense of adult responsibility, and permit instead their cunning animal or babyish instincts to take over and reign supreme within themselves. It must be a collective decision even if silently taken: for one person to behave in such a manner would look identifiably stupid and criminal but for him/her to do so in a group where everyone has simultaneously decided to abandon reason (whether spontaneously or shouting slogans together) allows the loss of individual responsibility to become hidden in the mass, and the collective to take on features of a hydra-headed monster, capable of the vilest deeds without the slightest self-doubt. The victim of their violence or abuse will often be an individual who stands out in some way ~ perhaps by natural or social attributes or even by heroic deeds: indeed Freud suggested that primitive tribes sometimes engaged in parricide and regicide, cannibalising their individual heroes in the belief that by consuming something of the hero’s remains those attributes might magically reappear in themselves.
In modern India, the presence of mob violence on a monthly basis somewhere or other in the country gives the lie to our claims of maturity of our political and democratic development. Those posing as our political leaders may make as many foreign trips and wooden prepared speeches on TV as they wish to, but their actual cowardice is manifest in having failed to address the real disjunction that exists in this country between political interests and political preferences at the grassroots on the one hand, and the lack of serious parliamentary conversation addressing these within our representative institutions on the other. The reliance by the Executive on often brutal police or paramilitary forces reflects failure of the Legislative and Judicial branches of our Government, as well as a lack of balance between them arising from our political and constitutional immaturity.
COMMUNISTS & CONSTITUTIONS
By SUBROTO ROY
first published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article,
January 22 2006 www.thestatesman.net
Constitutions and communists do not go together. The most glaring example comes from Russia — the Motherland not only of modern communism but also of great brave individual souls like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and the many other men and women who struggled to defeat communism there over seven decades. Before Russia managed to liberate herself from communism — i.e. before the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to liberate itself from itself in the late 1980s — the only genuine elections that ever occurred in the country were to the Constituent Assembly of November 1917.
That Constituent Assembly was a multiparty legislative body and it happened to have a large anti-Bolshevik majority. It met only once in January 1918 and was destroyed under Lenin immediately because it quite naturally refused to adopt Bolshevik proposals. Under the Czar, the “Constitutional Democratic Party” (the “Cadets”), formed in 1905, “constituted the most dangerous ranks of revolution”. Under the government of the proletariat, the very same Cadet Party represented “the most dangerous ranks of reaction” (Solzhenitsyn). Constitutionalists inevitably end up battling both the Fascists of the Right and the Communists of the Left. As Hannah Arendt made clear, the organisation of totalitarian governments whether of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China were remarkably similar in nature. Upon seizing power in November 1917, Russia’s Bolsheviks attacked the constitutionalists first, outlawing the Cadet Party and arresting its members, and doing the same to students, workers and soldiers associated with the “Alliance for the Constituent Assembly”.
This is not a coincidence. Communists and fascists are powered by instincts of grabbing State political power for themselves any which way they can, in order to impose by brute force on everyone else the rather shoddy obsolete ideologies they subscribe to themselves. Karl Marx himself most famously said the words “I am not a Marxist”. Communists and fascists cannot stand the idea of the anonymous individual citizen standing up on his or her own; their instinct is one which cannot attribute credit to the individual person for any good that may be done, instead purloining it into a fake “collective” effort. Similarly, errors cannot be simply acknowledged, and instead responsibility is diffused all around until nobody remembers who said or did what or when, and all history becomes a jumble.
Every great scientific and artistic achievement has been an expression of individual genius, often against the reactionary collective will. And constitutions from Magna Carta onwards have been built on the idea of protecting the anonymous, powerless individual citizen against the violent arbitrary power of the established State and its comprador organisations. Britain and America may have contributed their share of evil to world history but they have made up for at least some of it by pioneering Anglo-Saxon constitutional jurisprudence. It may be no coincidence Britain and America have been home to the greatest outpourings of human creativity and invention in modern times, from the steam engine to the Internet.
In fact it has been a singularly American contribution to pioneer the very idea that parliamentary majorities themselves need to be restrained from their own baser proclivities. In 1767, before America had herself become free from British rule, the British Parliament once issued a declaration that a parliamentary majority could pass any law it saw fit. It was greeted with an outcry of horror in Britain’s American colonies. Patrick Henry of Virginia — later famous for his cry “Give me Liberty or give me Death” — led the battle for the anonymous free individual citizen against the arbitrary power that comes to be represented by the herd or mob instincts even of elected parliamentary majorities. Constitutions are written to protect parliaments and peoples from themselves.
The philosopher John Wisdom, who translated the subtle work of Wittgenstein and Freud into normal idioms, once said: “Sometimes a society acts as if all power lay in the hands of the most babyish and animal members, and sometimes as if all power lay in the hands of strict old men, and sometimes it acts more as a whole — mostly when there’s a war on. Sometimes a man is not himself and acts as if a babyish or cunning animal had gained control — that’s the id — sometimes as if an exacting parent, a sarcastic schoolmaster, or an implacable deity possessed him — that’s the super-ego. Sometimes a man is more himself and acts more as a whole, a new whole which is not a combination but a synthesis of the id and the super-ego. Some are constantly at the mercy of the id, some are slaves to the super-ego, and in some first one and then the other gains an unhappy victory in a continual struggle, and in some conflict and control have vanished into cooperation…”
Similarly, we may say that political processes in any country appear to often give play to the most “babyish” and “cunning animal” instincts of the society, while at other times the “strict old men” or “exacting parent” take over. The constant struggle of political reasonableness is to find the rational, normal national self that rests in between.
India at present has been set upon an unproductive and pointless course of inevitable Constitutional collision between Parliament and the Supreme Court. That course has been singly set by the present Speaker even though every attempt is being made now to diffuse his responsibility for the situation that has arisen, so that soon nobody will be able to remember exactly what happened or why. The incumbent Speaker, instead of being wholly self-effacing as called for by the job-requirements of the high and grave office he holds, has remained too much of a normal parliamentary advocate. Before grave irreparable damage comes to be done to India’s Parliamentary and Constitutional traditions, he needs to return at once to the Front Benches of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as a distinguished senior Member of the House, and from there make whatever arguments he wishes about Parliament’s rights under the Constitution. The high self-effacing office of the Speaker is not from where such arguments as he has been making should be made — unless India’s Parliament and Constitution are soon to be thrown into the dustbin for ever (as has similarly happened for half a century across the border with our Pakistani cousins).
The incumbent Speaker is right that the Supreme Court does not oversee Parliament. The Supreme Court oversees something greater than Parliament, namely, India’s Constitution. Parliament, its Speaker, its Prime Minister, the President of India, and the Supreme Court itself are all creatures of the Constitution. However, the Constitution of India that was adopted on 26 January 1950 is not sui generis a creature of itself. It is the outcome of a clear and well-known constitutional history which has among its modern milestones the Government of India Act of 1935, and thence all the ancient milestones of Anglo-American constitutional jurisprudence going back to Magna Carta. And India’s Supreme Court — sitting not in any of its normal division benches but as a Constitutional Bench — does indeed have jurisdiction, indeed it has sole jurisdiction, over whether India’s Constitution is being made to suffer crimes or misdemeanours at the hands of India’s Government or Parliament of the day. For the Speaker to decline to receive a notice from the High Court is an irrelevancy; many people who are served notices ignore them; it does not reduce jurisdiction by an iota. An “All-Party” meeting of MPs can rail all it wants against the Supreme Court — even the whole of the present Parliament can pass as many unanimous resolutions as they want against the Supreme Court. They will only make themselves look silly and petulant in the eyes of history. As for the BJP Opposition in particular, the present situation may make it perfectly clear that there is not among them a single, principled, liberal constitutionalist hidden in their proto-fascistic ranks.
Subroto Roy hears Mr Blair’s testimony to the Iraq War Inquiry and recalls Hannah Arendt’s profound distinction in “Truth and Politics” between the mere liar and the fully self-deceived — the liar tells the lie but at least knows the truth himself; the self-deceived tells the lie to himself as much as to others and believes it too and so the truth is hopelessly lost to him.