Coming Home: Religion, Mass Violence, and the Exiled and Secret Selves of a Citizen-Killer
The violence that erupted when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan killed at least a million people. Yet there were no criminal inquiries, arrests, court cases, or convictions associated with the killings, rapes, mutilations, arson, and pillage. Partition took place when human rights movements were more or less unknown, in a world just getting accustomed to genocide and ethnic cleansing and the wanton destructiveness of the two world wars. Ideologically driven, handy justifications of such violence were given in the global culture of knowledge. The main ideological movements in the world were all perfectly comfortable with the idea of bloodshed as a part of normal politics. The civilizing mission of colonialism, the pursuit of national interest, revolutionary violence, and people’s war, even the concepts of reason and scientific rationality that were brought to bear on public affairs through social evolutionism, eugenics, and “scientized” history, enjoyed wide legitimacy among political actors as well as the intelligentsia. Even those who fought against the psychopathic violence of European authoritarianism in the name of democracy contributed handsomely to the culture of violence.
Neither the British Indian government nor the successor states of India and Pakistan ever tried to apprehend the killers or launch criminal investigations into the violence of Partition. Efforts to do so would have been futile. The police and law enforcement agencies were hopelessly compromised; their partisan behavior and, sometimes, direct collusion with the mobs are well known to those who have talked with victims of the violence. Moreover, because the violence was decentralized, the state was primarily a spectator. Only the political and moral presence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whom the last British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, called a one-man boundary force, was effective during this period. In this sense Mahmood Mamdani’s tentative formulation that the violence of 1946–48, like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, could be called a popular genocide has its appeal.
We may agree that genocidal violence cannot be understood as rational; yet, we need to understand it as thinkable. Rather than run away from it, we need to realize that it is the “popularity” of the genocide that is its uniquely troubling aspect. In its social aspect, Hutu/Tutsi violence in the Rwandan genocide invites comparison with Hindu/Muslim violence at the time of the partition of colonial India. Neither can be explained as simply a state project. One shudders to put the words “popular” and “genocide” together, therefore I put “popularity” in quotation marks. And yet, one needs to explain the large-scale civilian involvement in the genocide. To do so is to contextualize it, to understand the logic of its development.1
It is now well known — after Hannah Arendt, Robert J. Lifton, and Zygmunt Bauman — that data do not support the early efforts to interpret the European genocide as the work of sadists, criminals, and psychopaths. True, a small proportion of the killers can be classified as psychological and social misfits, but the work of annihilation involved a much larger social segment that squarely falls within the range of normality as conventionally defined. “By conventional criteria no more than 10 per cent of the SS could be considered ‘abnormal.’ This observation fits the general trend of testimony by survivors.... Our judgement is that the overwhelming majority of SS men, leaders as well as rank and file, would have easily passed all the psychiatric tests ordinarily given to American army recruits or Kansas City policemen.”2
If the killers are not outside the range of normality, then how are genocides organized? After all, killing does not come naturally to human beings. The skill has to be painstakingly inculcated. Following the political psychologist Herbert C. Kelman, Bauman suggests three conditions that weaken moral restraints against violence and cruelty: when violence is authorized and official, when violent behavior is routinized and demanded as part of a role, and when victims of violence are dehumanized through ideological indoctrination.3 This article explores how, when genocide becomes thinkable to ordinary, otherwise law-abiding citizens, it is not the end of the story. They have to cope with the reality of that self of theirs that preceded the genocide and the way it handled differences in cultures and faiths.
An influential work in recent years on the second part of the story — routinization of violence and socialization into violence as a way of life — is Dave Grossman’s On Killing.4 Grossman is not a psychologist, like Kelman or Stanley Milgram, but a soldier-scholar who comes from the heart of the American military machine and has taught at the U.S. Military Academy. He tells not only how violence is routinized into normality but also, contra Milgram, how difficult it is to weaken the inner resistance to killing in human beings and how much effort has to go into that weakening.
Dehumanization of victim community can be read as part of the larger process that Lifton calls psychological numbing, though numbing is obviously not unrelated to the other two contributing factors. Such dehumanization is usually brought about through hate propaganda, the manipulation of history to set up the victims as intrinsically dangerous or contaminating, and the use of scientific or pseudoscientific categories such as eugenics, demography, and social evolutionism.
However, even after all such maneuvers, the perpetrators and passively complicit citizenry cannot easily erase their moral discomfort after an instance of mass violence or genocide. The inner resistance to killing and torture is a part of human self-definition and, except for confirmed psychopaths, all participants in mass violence have to learn to live with themselves. Indeed, whether psychopaths are as successful in liberating themselves from moral restraints as psychiatrists psychologists believe is doubtful.
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This article grew out of a keynote address at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 6, 2008. The present version was written for the conference “Gandhi in a Globalized World,” at the Central European University, Budapest, December 1–3, 2008, while I was an Open Society Fellow at that university. The research reported was done at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, for a study of the mass violence that accompanied the independence of India and Pakistan. This work could not have been done without the collaboration of Rajni Bakshi. I am also grateful to Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar for his useful comments on an earlier draft.
- Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Kampala: Fountain, 2001), 8.
- George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport, The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1980), 2, quoted in Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 1989), 19.
- Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. For the first two conditions, Kelman is of course heavily indebted to Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). See also Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).
- Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), esp. chaps. 1–2.