The murders of Trayvon Martin and of Narendra Dabholkar are both attributable to flaws in the cultures of the countries where they were perpetrated. Martin’s death came as a result of a culture of fear that had been exacerbated by the divisive and polarized political debates in the United States. Dabholkar’s killers were emblematic of the anxieties that many in India find themselves gripped by, as that nation continues to make its stumbling way towards modernity.
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was the founder and president of an organization in the Indian state of Maharashtra called the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti – the Maharashtra Superstition Eradication Committee. He founded this organization as a kind of Myth Busters of India (specifically, of a state in Western India) but with a political bent – in a country where religious orders and practices are inter-twined with political power and leadership, challenging the idea of ritual practice is dangerous business. Even though Dr Dabholkar’s organization explicitly named itself as being against superstitions, rather than against religious practice, this would have afforded him little protection against the charge of robbing those whom he sought to save of the very cultural patrimony that gave them what was sometimes the only dignity they possessed.
In many respects, the two murders are very unalike, the most significant difference being that Martin’s death represented the continuing oppression faced by minority black community in the States, while Dabholkar’s killing was symbolic of a larger power struggle that is going on in India and within modern Indian culture. Both deaths are felt as a blow to those who have fond hopes for the progressive future of the two cultures, but perhaps Martin’s death is easier to stomach because it comes as no surprise given the tortured history of the Black American struggle. Dabholkar’s death on the other hand reveals the terrible setbacks that the project of modernization in India has been facing in recent years, setbacks that are all the more disappointing for happening in an era when the rest of the world seems to be accelerating towards, not away, from systems that encourage individual choice and toleration rather than suppressing it in the name of protecting the sanctity of cultural practices that are in need of reform.
The similarities between the two attacks are however important to consider because the emphasis this places on the collective responsibility borne in these two situations by the violent social forces that have created the conditions in which these acts seemed justified. In the case of Martin’s death, those forces are both more repugnant but also more weakened by the fact that they have been legitimized by the law of the land, at least to some extent. On the face of it, the sacrifice of Dabholkar’s life was the one that is more roundly condemned by all political parties, his killers having fled into anonymity to escape justice, unlike the situation that George Zimmerman was in where he believed that he was operating lawfully, and was subsequently supported in this belief by the country’s legal system.
However, the ostensible reach of the long arm of Indian law is shortened by the fact that those who killed Dabholkar have long received emotional support from many of the very political parties that are now protesting the flaccidity of the response of the Pune police department. Dabholkar’s most recent affront to his right-wing opponents was his championing a bill that would have placed pressure on religious groups that were seen as compelling individuals to exert themselves or be extorted somehow in the name of religious practice.
The wording of the bill has long been a matter of irritation to Dabholkar’s detractors. In it, they see a threat to their freedom of religion and to the uninhibited pursuit of those Indian customs and traditions that guarantee some members of Indian society a place of privilege. While there is no institutionalized clericalism in Indian society — and certainly less so among Hindus than among Muslims — the practices and social strictures of both these communities leave no doubt that some enjoy greater privilege of movement and personal choice than others, due precisely to the structures and practices of their respective religious communities. The use of superstition to perpetuate these positions of relative power is well-known.
This threat to modern thinking that is being posed by the retrogressive elements of Indian society wouldn’t be perhaps a matter of serious concern if it weren’t for cases like that of Dr Devadutta Pattanaik, a self-styled “mythologist” and “leadership consultant” who is re-packaging what are the superstitions of less-educated classes into the self-congratulatory rationalizations of the more privileged ones. In his books and presentations, Pattanaik emphasizes the need to discover Indian roots and versions of such abstractions as “business” and “management. To people like Pattanaik, infusing indigenous cultural flavors is becoming a means whereby they can get paid to repeat completely unoriginal ideas, simply by claiming that by describing these ideas in an “Indian” way, they have discovered an insight into the underlying practice itself.
Pattanaik takes this act of translation a step further by not merely using an Indian vocabulary but by creating visual metaphors for these ideas that are grounded in ancient Indian religious iconography and in pseudo-philosophical and overly simplified versions of ancient Indian scriptures. This allows him to re-categorize phenomenon and transpose them from negative symptoms to positive outcomes that are worth of celebration. The disorder of Indian streets is not indicative of the failure of civic systems and a lack of civic pride in general, but an indication Indians are merely honoring a version of the many-headed and fickle gods with contradictory and unfathomable emotions that they worship in their shared historical imaginations.
Pattanaik’s presentations and the anti-modernism protests of right-wing political parties thereby walk in lock-step, embracing the embattled secular, rationalist and liberal establishment in India in a pincer formation. The same dynamic is evident in the Zimmerman/Martin altercation – there is an emotional arc to the incident that of course appeals to the lowest common denominator, the one that sees blacks, and especially black youth, as sinister and perpetually up-to-no-good; and this is accompanied by the other fear among non-racist but also-conservative members of the American upper class who consider that law enforcement agencies and governments are irrelevant and enervated in coming to the defense of individual life and property.
Ultimately, both societies have to face up to their demons, and not attempt to escape the self-examination that these incidents force upon us. These deaths might seem like isolated incidents, unconnected to the larger cultural trajectories that are unfolding around them. Those in each society who are emotionally invested in defending its essential goodness will be tempted to absolve their respective cultures of blame. The killings will be explained away, as irrational and emotionally reprehensible reactions of depraved individuals. But the truth lies not in their identities and motivations but in what social conditions they find solace and brotherhood, and how these social conditions allowed them to rationalize the use of deadly force against unarmed opponents.