The Violence of the Weak

In this age of ‘terror’ it is easy to forget that political violence has been a constant in history virtually since the earliest human settlement, and particularly so in the modern era. The totalitarian discourses of states and corporate medias have gotten us believing that the current manifestation of ‘terrorism’ is uniquely grotesque. Contemporary non-state political movements that employ violence may be different from those that preceded them in terms of ideology, scope and even goals. But their use of violent methods – the one feature most dwelt upon – is hardly novel.

Most young people have not heard his name but Frantz Fanon’s ideas continue to influence radical political movements the world over. Fanon wrote 50 years ago – much has changed since then but most of the world’s people remain subject to the imperialist bondage that Fanon so deeply despised. A psychologist by training, Fanon dedicated himself to the Algerian people’s struggle against French colonialism. His participation in the independence movement led him to conclude that colonized peoples suffered from a deep-seated inferiority complex and that breaking the chains of mental slavery was only possible by matching and even surpassing the violence of the colonizer.

The Algerian war of independence featured urban guerilla tactics and specifically attacks on white settlers (non-combatants). Some commentators assert that the near-eulogizing of violence during the anti-colonial struggle may have forced the French out but left a deep imprint on the minds of Algerians – hence violence became a distinctive characteristic of post-colonial politics. According to these critics, Fanon was correct in identifying the psychology of violence but erred in his insistence that there is a symbiotic relationship between violence and liberation.

I do not believe that it is possible to draw any meaningful correlation between revolutionary violence and the often cynical politics of violence that plagues so many post-colonial societies. If anything the more retrogressive forms of politics that exist in many parts of Asia and Africa are a direct legacy of the technologies of rule of European colonial powers and in particular the deliberate politicization of identities such as ethnicity, race and caste.

The era in which Fanon was writing was that in which the sheer hypocrisy of ‘bourgeois civilization’ – a term coined by Fanon’s teacher Aime Cesaire – was unfolding before the world. Many intellectuals within the ‘belly of the beast’ argued that it was legitimate for colonized peoples to respond in kind to the barbarism of the colonizers. Fanon was not alone in arguing that revolutionary violence was a necessity in the face of deeply entrenched cultural and political hegemony. Mao famously noted that ‘revolution grows out of the barrel of a gun’. Che claimed that small bands of dedicated revolutionaries could foment upheaval throughout the third world. Guerilla wars were fought against imperialism and ruling classes in Asia, African and Latin America throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Throughout this heady period political violence may have had its critics but there was nothing like the consensus that has been concocted in today’s world vis a vis ‘terrorism’.

This is not to suggest that relatively peaceful anti-colonial movements did not exist, or that such movements were unsuccessful in forcing the colonizers to leave. Gandhi was of course not just the leader of the Indian independence struggle but also distinguished himself as a philosopher of non-violence. His primary contribution was to blur the binary of means and ends; for Gandhi physical liberation meant nothing without spiritual liberation and the latter could only be achieved by renouncing violence in all its various forms.

Gandhi and his ideas still carry great weight in Indian politics, and I would argue that this influence extends to all resistance movements that struggle with questions of means and ends. In recent days debates on revolutionary violence have been reinvigorated by Arundhati Roy who has written about her experiences wandering the jungles of Andhra Pradesh with Naxalite – also known as Maoist – rebels that the Indian prime minister has repeatedly called the country’s biggest security threat. By some accounts Naxalites control up to 25% of India’s landmass and in years to come this figure could go up further.

Roy’s writings verge on the celebratory; she personalizes the daily heroism of the rebels, lauds their historic resistance to the predatory corporate mineral companies that seek to pillage India’s bauxite and iron and thereby destroy an age-old eco-system that sustains millions of people, and slams the draconian violence of the state. Without mincing her words, Roy argues that the forest people of central India have been forced into a corner, that their resort to violence, even if not justified, cannot be condemned in the same breath as that of their oppressor.

If nothing else one has to salute Roy for writing so candidly about the rebels in the midst of a campaign of unprecedented state propaganda (she could be incarcerated indefinitely, as could those who published her work). Gandhians and liberals alike are aghast at her polemic yet the ethical and political questions that she raises cannot simply be dismissed because one objects to her personal politics. I actually think it is terribly unfortunate that much of the debate generated by Arundhati’s writings focuses on her person rather than the issues that she is raising. In fact some introspection is necessary here: should not thinkers on the left engage more consistently with debates on political violence rather than only in response to Arundhati publishing her travel-log? That we do have not till now confronted realities that have been trivialized and caricatured to the point of farce in the age of ‘terror’ indicates just how hegemonic state and media discourses have become.

In Pakistan – the ever beseeched frontline state – such debates are conspicuous by their absence. In recent years two distinct insurgencies have raged in this country. The first, the one that has garnered the world’s attention and made us all into hopeless consumers of TV facts, is based in the ethnic Pakhtun areas in the north-west and is spearheaded by Islamists. The second, hardly discussed in the press and the conflict which has a much longer history, pitches very secular ethnic Baloch nationalists – including separatists – against the state.

Quite aside from the completely disproportionate coverage that each of these insurgencies garners in the media, it is amazing how the state has convinced a majority of Pakistanis that both are fairly uncomplicated cases of foreign-funded ‘terrorists’ out to compromise the integrity of the state, and thus created a mandate for itself to ‘wipe them out’. In actuality, the history, methods and politics of the two insurgencies are so different that they cannot be made the same. The only similarity between them is that they both take on the state and the state in turn keeps feeding them by using military might to try and crush them.

Some liberals might be willing to accept the Baloch struggle as legitimate – although it is another matter that the means employed by the insurgents are offensive to liberal sensibilities – while designating the Islamists as hailing from the ‘stone ages’, being ‘barbaric’ and representing a ‘threat to civilisation’. I am not sure what all the hullabaloo is about. It was after all many of these same liberals who believed it was necessary to support the then-mujahideen against Afghan communists (who, incidentally, wanted to introduce secular education and a modicum of social justice).

And even if one were to forget this sordid history for a fleeting moment, does decrying the Islamists as barbarians actually stop the supply-line of recruits? Has anyone bothered to take seriously the fact that there are large numbers of young people that are flocking to the Islamist cause? It is true that many of them are hopelessly indoctrinated, but that actually reinforces the point: criminalizing them and then trying to blow them out of the water is actually counter-productive. Will the Islamist narrative of oppression and civilizational conflict not simply become more appealing to the Muslim mass?

In this sense similar questions must be asked in considering the claims of the Islamists and the secular Baloch nationalists. Why is it that people pick up guns? Were they born with a genetic defect that made them weapon magnets? Large numbers of Baloch youth were not always necessarily prone to fighting the Pakistani state. If it is possible – even if only for the very few who are able to see beyond state propaganda – to recognize that the Baloch have been progressively alienated from the state and that brandishing the stick exacerbates this alienation, then surely similar logic can be applied to the Pakhtun populations who have been subject to violent conflict for the best part of four decades (arguably even longer if one reads the history of the British engagement with the Pakhtuns since the 1840s).

Mao, Fanon and Gandhi, for all of their disagreements, were all of the opinion that throughout history it has been dominant powers, state and imperialism foremost amongst them, that have killed and maimed subordinate classes and groups at will, that violence is almost always the preserve of the rich and powerful. If society is dehumanized it is those who control it that are primarily responsible.

Thus even when the perennially oppressed rise up and challenge their oppressors, they do so as the weaker party; their violence is the violence of the weak. Does this make it any better or justify it? The answer to this question depends on who is asked. It is worth quoting Gandhi writing on Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1938 here: ‘I wish the Arabs had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds’. 

When Arundhati asks whether there are other means of resisting the alliance of state and corporate capital ‘in the face of overwhelming odds’, she is restating an age-old question. That there is no simple answer to this question is beyond doubt. But we live in an age where to even ask this question is tantamount – if I may be allowed to digress into George W. Bush-speak – to ‘aiding and abetting the terrorists’. In the name of (re)establishing the ‘writ of the state’ and the ‘rule of law’, we provide a mandate to the already powerful to consolidate their power while refusing to understand that those who are challenging the state’s writ or transgressing the law might actually be real people with real reasons for their actions.

It is all good and well to talk of the law and conforming to it when one is not facing the prospect of a mortar shell landing on one’s roof. This is not to suggest that ‘revolutionary’ violence is necessarily the answer, or even to deny that in the 20th century revolutionary violence did not herald a transformation of society of the kind that the visionaries had proclaimed it would. But revolutionary, or for that matter any kind of political violence will not go away because it should.

Do I believe there are other means of resisting? Absolutely. Am I convinced by Fanon’s argument that violence is indispensable? Not necessarily. But can I say unequivocally that non-violence is always the way to go? Baloch youth have been disappeared in the thousands, tortured and sometimes killed. Thousands of Pakhtun innocents have been caught in the crossfire of the New Great Game over the past few years. Surely their sensibilities are different from mine, or even from the ideologues that try and win them over to the cause. Why do some of them join the separatists or the Islamists and why do they resort to the kind of violence that they do? The answers to these questions must be sought.

For what it’s worth, I think that the tendency for more and more people to renounce political violence outright is problematic because the structural (alongwith physical) violence of the state and imperialism is actually more hegemonic today than it was in the era of revolutionary upheaval. Is it not hegemonic that the onus is on the oppressed to be the flagbearers of non-violence?


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