Reverse Swing: Revenge as the New Rasa
‘Nirbhaya’s rapists are heading for the gallows, and sections of society claim that this ‘eye-for-an-eye’ reprisal satisfies the ‘collective conscience of its society’ and provides emotional closure to a pent up sense of injury to the victim’s kin as well as to the masses in general. Some thoughts on revenge.
‘Nirbhaya’s rapists are heading for the gallows, accompanied by blood-curdling comments on social media. One segment of Indian society has called it out as an abhorrent form of primitive ‘justice’ continuing to survive in modern society and is convinced the hangings would neither abolish the crime nor provide a deterrence to its being repeated again and again, perhaps in even more brutal ways. Another segment claims this ‘eye-for-an-eye’ reprisal satisfies the ‘collective conscience of its society’ and provides emotional closure to a pent up sense of injury to the victim’s kin as well as to the masses in general.
From the time of Cain and Abel, the revenge cells in the human DNA have systematically returned to stalk its conscience. Civilization might be the name for compassion and mercy – the Buddhist idea of ‘anukampa’ (a tremulous and active concern for the other) – but the ‘violent revenge-index’ has effectively kept us locked in, what Karl Marx called, ‘the pre-history of humanity’.
Humanitarian advocate Indira Jaising, who has crusaded throughout her career against capital punishment, made an earnest, if misplaced, appeal to Nirbhaya’s mother to seek a revocation of capital punishment for her daughter’s assaulters. The resultant backlash on the brilliant lawyer, who has always fought for causes and has been a tireless feminist activist both in and outside courts, is stunning. The viciousness is unparalleled and the ferocity with which ‘bloody revenge’ is being publicly advocated is of a scale that poses a distinct threat to democratic and constitutional values on the one hand, and evolutionary jurisprudence on the other. A significantly large chunk of the population seems to be finding irrational ecstasy in the very imagination of revenge.
The recent arrest of a decorated officer of the J&K Police’s dirty tricks department, Davinder Singh, has reopened the doubts around the lapses in the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 and has renewed the uneasy feeling in many that the execution of the Kashmiri to “assuage the collective conscience” of the nation, as the court said, ended up taking the colour of vengefulness. It is another way of saying that, for the unsolved case of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, a scapegoat was needed and sending any Kashmiri Muslim to the hangman would have served the purpose. When one revisits the more than a decade long court case and the debates around the nature of Afzal Guru’s punishment, it is extraordinary how many voices across the country and its media cautioned against the jurisprudence of vengeance. However, the high decibel levels drummed up by the collective clack-gang of RSS/VHP/BJP combine, along with Maninderjeet Singh Bitta of a fringe outfit called the All India Anti-Terrorist Front, succeeded in submerging and neutralising all appeals to reason and fairness. The near-universal celebration of this blood-lust was certainly a corrosive moment for Indian democracy.
We sowed the wind then. Now we are reaping the whirlwind.
In U.P., a consecrated ‘yogi’ is shrieking for revenge against anti-CAA protestors. And it is not merely rough-necks on the streets who are heeding his call, but also the criminal force in uniform which even goes beyond its call to hurl verbal insults and obscenities on Muslim women, men and children. The BJP’s Bengal chief, Dilip Ghosh, has taken calls for revenge and retribution against Muslims to new and dangerous levels of incendiarism – including asking for anti-CAA protestors to be ‘shot like dogs’ – for which, any ordinary mortal would have been booked for at least seven offences under prevailing laws. Of course, it is a deliberate provocation, taunting the West Bengal government to arrest him and give him a chance to whip the state into a storm of communal frenzy. Almost every day, some high functionary of the ruling party at the Centre experiments with a fresh tirade of revenge-speech against Muslims, Communists, Congress, student protestors, labour/farmer protestors, anti-Citizenship Act agitators, Modi-critics, those asking for an end to the inhuman lockdown in Kashmir – the list of things for which revenge is being proposed is getting breathless. The takings for the high grosser vendetta films is bound to decline when the audience itself begins chanting ‘Vengeance is Mine’.
But, then, this should not surprise. Revenge has been slowly becoming the new ‘rasa’ of our times. Revenge for some thousand-years-old ‘invasion’. Revenge for the unspeakable brutalities of Partition. Revenge upon the entire community of Sikhs for Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination by Sikh bodyguards. Revenge for the ancient pillage of Somnath temple. Even revenge for imaginary injuries, like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, on the fantasized and tendentious claims of it being a god’s birthplace.
Avenge. Vengeance. Revenge. None of these are new emotions. They have been part of the human repertoire from very early times and most old epics and even holy books are replete with it. The Mahabharata, which has today attained the status of a revered religious tome is, in fact, the epic narrative of a series of grotesque acts of vengeance. Amba avenges the humiliation of her abduction by being reborn as Shikhandi and causes the fall of the invincible Bhishma in the war. Draupadi seeks revenge for the humiliation caused by her public disrobing and Bhima enables it by tearing apart Dussashana, pulling out his entrails, drinking his blood and letting Draupadi wash her hair with it. Bhima, similarly, despatches Kichaka and Duryodhana too in gory, but celebratory retributions. Gandhari exacts revenge for her hundred dead sons by cursing Krishna to suffer an ignominious end. Ashwatthama avenges the cheap deception with which his father Dronacharya was killed by stealthily entering the Pandava camp under the cloak of darkness and wiping out the entire Yadava clan and mercilessly slaying all the women and children. The Great War culminates in unprecedented bloodshed. Out of the reported 40 lakh (four million) participants in the war, at the end of the 18th day, only nine people are left standing. The battlefield is strewn with rotting human flesh, with vultures and dogs feasting on it. The vows of mutual revenge produced a holocaust of Armageddon proportions reminiscent, in the Peter Brook staging of the epic, of a nuclear winter. The ‘victory’ of the Pandavas was hollow. There is no one left to savour it with.
These recurring themes of ancient vengeance, leading to endless bloodletting and relentless misery might be construed as fables that contain precious morals and catechisms for our times warning us against the fascination with vengeful violence.
One Urdu ghazal I am haunted by is Qateel Shifai’s ‘Ulfat ki nayi manzil ko chala’ (You, on the path of fresh romantic conquest…), made immortal by the incandescent Iqbal Bano’s soaring rendition. Today, one can cast it in a new iteration:
Nafrat ki nayi manzil ko chala
Tu badla le kar shaharon mein,
Sar phodne waley dekh ke chal
Tum bhi toh giroge in raahon mein.
Indeed, we need to discover a talisman to delink ourselves from this ‘rasa’ of insatiable revenge.