I received a video on one of the many WhatsApp groups I am (but don’t want to be) during the early days of the lockdown. The video showed four police personnels beating men who were out on the street. The video was edited to elicit a comic response from the viewer and had voice over of people laughing in the background. As the rest of the group cheered, I felt deeply uncomfortable about how humour was used to normalise violence inflicted by the Police on normal citizens. When I objected to the video, the responses I received ranged were – ‘This is harmless fun’- ‘Why were men venturing out in the first place?’ – ‘What is wrong in using violence if people don’t listen?’
The last argument in support is at the core of how our society perceives violence. We are simply not averse to it and in fact have accepted it as a trivial part of our lives – never standing up to question its source and often internalising various forms of violence we are subjected to. Normalisation starts during childhood where kids are routinely beaten up and spanked under the garb of instilling discipline and maintaining order. Schools continue this tradition when a child enters their premises. Although physical abuse in schools have gone down in a few urban centres, teachers still use forms of emotional and mental violence like naming and shaming, bullying to keep children in line.
I am not trying to shame parents or teachers who have resorted to the use of violence on children but to question and investigate the culture that places violence at its core. When parents, teachers and other elders constantly use physical force – they not only end up desensitising children to violence but also exposes them to various power structures within which violence thrives. All forms of violence we are subjected to as children are inflicted on us by people who exert power over us. Power structures are extremely vital for any kind of violence to sustain – and by accepting violence we end up conforming to power structures of age, gender, caste, class and any other societal order.
When I was 6 years old, I was slapped by my school bus conductor on a return journey home. I don’t remember why he did it but I remember the wrath on my father’s face when he saw the imprints of the conductor’s palm on my face. My parents stormed the school Principal’s office to complain against the conductor’s behaviour. The Principal swiftly suspended the conductor for a few weeks and later transferred him to a different route bus. A couple years later, one of my class teachers slapped me. She would routinely subject all the children to physical punishments but that day I was singled out for talking in the middle of a lesson. I was called to the front of the classroom where she slapped me twice. I quietly walked back to my desk, fighting tears and shame – thinking about getting her transferred to a different class, just like the bus conductor was.
I narrated my ordeal to my parents later that evening. However, this time there was no wrath on their faces just a bit of pity mixed with traces of empathy. I was told to be more careful in the future. ‘Your final exams are only three months away and then you will be in a new class with a new class teacher who will not hit you or punish you.’ My mother consoled me as tears streamed down my face.
Though I was too young to comprehend the near opposite reactions of my parents to the same acts of violence inflicted to me by two different persons – in retrospect it was one of the most important lessons I learnt about violence. We rarely shun or criticise an act of violence not because we are against the very act – because it happens outside our accepted power structures and threatens to destabilise them. It was accepted for my teacher to slap me because she occupied a higher stature than me (and my parents) unlike the bus conductor who came from a lower income (perhaps caste) group.
In retrospect, these two incidents not only trivialised the concept of violence for me, but also helped me identify and establish our society’s complicated relation with violence. We allow it to flourish and use it to keep the power structures intact. The very act of violence is only questioned when it transgresses the many acceptable forms of it.
It is important to view the recent brutal murder of a father-son duo in Tamil Nadu by the Police in tandem with our own understanding and acceptance of violence – and the justice we seek for it. What part of the incident do we find outrageous? Is it the grave degree of violence that was unleashed on two innocent men that has shook us to the core? Would it have been okay if they were ‘lightly’ beaten up and let loose like thousands of people are every day? We do we constantly feel the need to stress on ‘innocent’? Should people convicted of crimes deserve to be subjected to such inhuman cruelty?
The policemen who tortured the two men to death should be held accountable for their heinous crime. However, by just focussing on getting harsh punishments for the culprits, what we are essentially seeking is not justice but revenge. If we truly seek justice, we have to start by fixing our callous attitude towards everyday violence.
Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad that came out earlier this year was a rare achievement for Bollywood to sensitively explore the issue of domestic violence. Amrita (played by Taapsee Pannu) the protagonist of the film walks out of a seemingly happy marriage after her husband slaps her one night. ‘Its just one slap’, Amrita is told by her family and lawyer but for Amrita, the slap signifies an imbalance of power in her marriage where she is less equal than her husband. At one point, Amrita’s husband begs her to slap him to settle the score but Amrita isn’t looking for revenge on her husband. She wants justice by freeing herself from an unequal marriage.
Our attitude towards domestic violence and police brutality are not very different. Though the discourse around gender equality has made it marginally better to condemn domestic violence, – we continue to view police brutality as a necessary evil. We often forget that both are different faces of the same coin, used to reinforce hegemonic power structures – of caste, gender, class or state.
If we truly want justice for Jayaraj and Fenix, we will need to dismantle the hegemonic power structures that made it possible for humans to inflict such barbarity on fellow humans. How do we do that? Let’s start with rejecting all forms of violence we encounter in our everyday lives including the ones that make us laugh – especially the ones that make us laugh.
Views are the author’s own. Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist-in-making. If you have a story or opinion that you would like to share, write to us [email protected]