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Violence as the other: A portrait of the seventies

brunch Updated: Jul 21, 2012 18:00 IST
Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv Visvanathan
Hindustan Times
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There are times when a society abandons its institutions and thinks its way through violence. The ’70s was an era where violence conducted a variety of thought experiments.

Three modes of violence marked this decade. The first was the Emergency, the second was Bollywood and the third was development as violence. The combination of the three created an era where violence became a Modern Indian grammar. Only most of India was not born then and what it experiences or recreates now is a vicarious sense of the Seventies.

Naxalbari was almost over and the Indian State thought of its activities as a kind of spring cleaning. The more idealistic of Naxals died in jail and many survivors joined the best social science institutes, perpetuating violence through social science.

Amitabh Bachchan represented a generation which saw in violence the ultimate act of problem solving

But what Naxalism created with such effort, Bollywood created effortlessly. It created the new myth of urbanism and urban violence through an unforgettable hero – Amitabh Bachchan.

Bachchan was a perfect foil to the gentleness of Rajesh Khanna, a true romantic. Bachchan was the first urban hero. He was the first hero who had no roots in the village and saw himself at home in a slum. Bachchan portrayed the true equality of all urban occupations by playing coolie, paanwallah, cop, criminal and smuggler. His was a faith in urban mobility and he had little hope in ordinary goodness. Bachchan represented the poetry of urban violence, the cleansing power of violence as it battled evil.

Bachchan’s Bollywood created the myth of violence. Bollywood caught the contradictions between law and family, cop and criminal by showing India had never reconciled public and private domains in a harmonious way. The good cop destroys a long-lost criminal only to discover in him a long-lost brother.

The affinity and opposition between law and criminality actually set the base for violence as excess, as the only rhetoric and force that worked. At a time when institutions were sick, when norms were fickle, violence was seen as the only answer. Amitabh Bachchan was not just the angry young man. He represented a generation which saw in violence the ultimate act of problem solving. But Bachchan’s violence was not evil. It could be misunderstood, misused; it could be tragic.

But true evil began with Sanjay Gandhi. Sanjay Gandhi was the architect of the Emergency and a man who single-handedly dissolved the institutional structures around which Nehruvian India was built. Trade unions, courts, universities, the bureaucracy all dissolved under the corrosive eye of Indira Gandhi’s son. He saw himself as Mr Development and used urban and family planning to eliminate the poor as poverty was more difficult to erase.

Jacques Derrida once said the evil of the future sometimes comes as an advance warning epitomised in one individual. Sanjay Gandhi was such an apparition. A self-styled mechanic who served a stint at Rolls Royce, a self-appointed designer whose original car ran 40 miles before its doors fell off, Sanjay felt he was a paradigm for a new governance.

Tired of the unending talk of democracy, he demanded the silence of submission and dotted politics with illiterate injunctions like “work more, talk less.” He hated the argumentative Indian.

He created an ultimate circle of sycophancy and between sycophancy and fear fabricated India’s only period of dictatorship. Luckily what politics could not do, technology did and a plane crash created an end to a man who dreamt of being the Henry Ford of India.

The Seventies marked the irony of development as modern technological projects wrecked the countryside – damming rivers, polluting villages, displacing people. The violence of development was disguised by the sanctity we gave to economics as a science. The citizen was no longer a person recognised by the Constitution, he was one who was not vulnerable to development. We were about to create a nation of refugees, ready to convince the world that we were a hard state. Tribes, Nomads, Slums, Pastoral Groups were all becoming non-citizens.

Social scientist and columnist Shiv Visvanathan is a research associate at a craft-oriented alternatives group, the Ahmedabad-based Compost Heap

In a strange way we live with the decade of the Seventies. The Emergency still exists in some other context. Amitabh survives now in a mellow manner but his message of violence has eaten deep into the psyche of India. Only we label it as globalisation. A decade we have forgotten still shapes our unconscious. A Freud of urbanism will have to dig deep into this decade to understand the making of violence in 21st century India.


Operation Flood helps dairy farmers take control of their lives and ushers in the White Revolution.


India, Pakistan fight their second war. Bangladesh is created after Pakistani troops surrender.


Historic Simla Agreement inked between India and Pakistan, forcing them into a reluctant peace.


Under Project Smiling Buddha, India detonates a nuclear weapon on home ground.

Over 17 million Indian Railways workers go on the largest strike ever, demanding a pay hike


Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares a state of Emergency in the country. The press is censored, Opposition leaders are jailed.

Aryabhata, the first Indian satellite, goes into earth’s orbit to conduct experiments


Indira Gandhi lifts the Emergency and releases all political prisoners. Calls for fresh elections which she loses. Thus, the first non-Congress government comes to power with Morarji Desai as the prime minister


The Morvi Dam bursts in Gujarat, creating the biggest flood-related disaster of independent India. There is massive loss of life.

Social scientist and columnist Shiv Visvanathan is a research associate at a craft-oriented alternatives group, the Ahmedabad-based Compost Heap.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

Next week, The Sixties by Rachel Dwyer

From HT Brunch, July 22

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