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Is all power an exercise of violence? Jaipur Literature Festival asks tough questions

While the Padmaavat controversy rages, a conversation with Upinder Singh, Maya Jasanoff, Tridip Suhrud, and Patrick French brought up important questions on the state of violence and the violence of the State.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 25, 2018 18:48 IST
Vidya Subramanian
Vidya Subramanian
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF
Foreign and Rajasthani folk artists perform during the inauguration of Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace in Jaipur on Thursday. (PTI)

What is violence? Are there different kinds of violence? Is the violence of the state legitimate? Has it always been thus? These were some of the complicated questions dancing in the air as British writer and historian Patrick French conducted a conversation with three other historians – Delhi University’s Upinder Singh (author of Political Violence in Ancient India), Maya Jasanoff from Harvard, and Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud.

“All power is an exercise of violence,” remarked Maya Jasanoff, just as Upinder Singh, daughter of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, finished talking about the different ideas of violence in ancient India. Conversation moved from that central thought to the violence that we are currently living amidst, even as the Padmaavat row carries on.

The most interesting thing about ancient India, Upinder Singh observed, was the amount of thought and debate around the idea of violence. Religious heads, philosophers, kings, had all thought about it: the violence of the State, the need for violence for the individual, and how to reconcile the idea of power and violence. This was not how it was anywhere else in the world, where the right to exercise violence had always been at the heart of the colonial enterprise. Gandhi, of course, sits separate from that discourse. After World War I, violence around the world was only increasing, fuelled by two things, as Jasanoff points, technology and psychology. Gandhi’s ideas of non violence in such a world were a marked shift in politics and philosophy. Was it strategic? Was it pragmatic? It was certainly effective.

Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud argues that Gandhi’s non violence stemmed from two things – practice and his experience of violence in South Africa. Gandhi’s non violence is not the easy greeting card philosophy of “be the change you want to see” (Patrick French pointed out how Gandhi had never actually said that). Perhaps we had retroactively imputed a benign non violence to Gandhi, uncomplicated by the rough edges of his philosophy and politics. Speaking of the relevance of Gandhi today, Suhrud said, “What is worrying is that there is so much innovation in terms of forms of violence, aided by psychology and technology; but very little moral innovation in the ideas of non violence.”

It wasn’t until the discussion was opened to the audience that the Padmaavat row was mentioned. As an incredulous audience member pointed out the incongruity of having a discussion “On Violence” without mentioning the violence currently unfolding, Maya Jasanoff succinctly paraphrased the problem, taking a larger view of the world, including the situation in the US and the many wars that are currently waging around the word. Violence is no longer an instrument of the state that has moral authority, she said. The moral authority now rests in non violence. So, states tend to push violence to separate groups. “We mustn’t let them get away with it,” she concluded.

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First Published: Jan 25, 2018 18:42 IST