Perpetrator and Victim

These reflections stem from psychological support I provided in August 2002 to Gujarat non-governmental organizations [NGOs] in response to communalized civil violence, state-sponsored genocide, and sexual atrocities against women. Through listening to Muslim women, studying the drawings of children, and meeting with adolescent males, the public health activist in me sought out recommendations to prevent future carnage. First, I want to acknowledge that excellent analyses have already been written regarding the excessive characteristics of the Gujarat violence: the way in which the State flagrantly destroyed human life, and the shameful way in which innocent bodies continue to be used as proxy battlefields for communal sentiments. In this piece, I want to highlight intervention concepts that would support two populations: 1) Indian males and 2) physicians. I hope this piece will provoke appropriate debate among activists/development experts.

A 15-year old boy in Qureshi Hall had said that he wanted to "speak to someone." An activist discerned that what he was really asking was to speak to a male who would listen. SAHR WARU, a women's action group, introduced me to Anwar [name altered] at Qureshi Hall, a make-shift relief shelter in Ahmedabad.

"This is the boy we were talking about."

"Mera naam hai Anwar Hussain," he said, offering his hand in the way many desi men do -- not looking only to shake my hand, but offering it for the sake of holding.

"Assalaam Alaikum," I offered in return.


Anwar led me away from where I had just spoken with 18 women who had suffered and witnessed a frightening array of human brutality: maulings, gang rapes, immolations, feticide, and family massacres. He took me aside and asked me to wait as he disappeared for a minute. He reappeared with a chaddar, spread it on the ground and invited me to sit with him.

He didn't waste time with further formalities. "My brother and I were able to escape to the roof. Only a ladder led to the roof, so we figured we could dismantle it and take a few of them with us if the tola [mob] came for us. We could see everything that happened in Gulberg that day. They captured a pregnant woman. As she screamed, her baby was cut out of her. The Hindus poured kerosene on the mother and set her on fire."

I was searching Anwar's face for feeling, trying to determine his degree of dissociation. Dissociation is an alteration in thinking or awareness that distances a person from undesirable feelings. Then I saw his throat swallow past something that refused to move easily, "They impaled the fetus on the sword and danced with it in happiness."

Inwardly, I gasped. My face tightened.

He continued, "Somewhere else my father and other brother were captured. It is said that my father was told to declare, 'Jai Shri Ram,' but he clasped a Qur'an and began praying instead. Hindus ruined his face, stabbed my brother, and burned them both."

We were both silent. I was having trouble assimilating it all. As my intent was to support Anwar, and not re-traumatize him, I did not ask him to explain what he meant by "ruined." I interpreted this to mean that his father's face was mutilated.

Three younger boys had gathered either to witness the telling of Anwar's story or to give him support -- probably both. I had hardly noticed them enough to consider whether they were hearing something too disturbing, too traumatizing.

"That is the worst thing," I said. "It sounds like a very bad dream, but you saw it happen." He nodded, we exchanged many more words, and then at some point I asked, "What is on your mind these days?"

By asking this question, a psychotherapist seeks to determine how past, present or future oriented a person may be after a severe trauma. This was almost six months into the Hindu-Muslim convulsions that had started on February 27, 2002. If Anwar were predominantly feeling stuck in the past, then one would consider special therapeutic approaches.

Anwar was fairly future-oriented: "For three days, Hindus were given freedom to do whatever they wanted. We want an hour. Just one hour to do what we must." His wish for revenge became the subject of our discussion that afternoon. The other boys joined in saying they all wanted to settle the score. I acknowledged Anwar's pain without probing too much. I told all of them that I was worried for them. Out of my own convictions, and not out of a wish to be coercive, I told Anwar that I was worried about his soul. He nodded and allowed that Allah would disapprove, but that he had nothing else to live for. "Besides," he remarked, "everybody is talking about it." When it was time to stop, Anwar and I gave each other uneasy smiles, averted our eyes when looking at one another became too much, and said goodbye.

The Thrust of the Violence

"We have widened the tight vaginas of the bibis."
-- Hindutva pamphlet titled Jehad

Hindutva is the political and cultural philosophy promulgating that Hindus & Hinduism must reign supreme in India. In her "Semiotics of Terror" published in Economic and Political Weekly, Tanika Sarkar skillfully applies to Gujarat what was warned in Anand Patwardhan's documentary film Pitra, Putra, aur Dharmyudh [Father, Son & Holy War]: There is a growing tendency in Hindu militancy to symbolically and literally assert the penis in response to perceived threats by Muslims, Western hegemony, and women's liberation. Swords, erections, semen, and penetration are all uncritically celebrated, and anything to the contrary is ridiculed. Given this symbolic script, Gujarati Hindu mobs openly "toyed" with Muslim bodies. Men not only gang-raped helpless girls, but they also sought out sexual variety: "Kapdaa utaro...Pesaab karo," ordering women to strip and then urinate -- one of the many arousal fantasies that configured the Hindu mob actions. At one relief camp I was asked to view the crayon drawings of elementary school-aged children. Violent uses of sex had been so stark that the children detailed penises to represent their attackers.

In Anwar's Gujarat, women were brought into hospitals stark naked and badly burnt. Taboos that typically hold society together were scoffed at. Cricket balls and sticks were removed from their vaginas. Human fetuses were made into playthings. Men were tortured, humiliated, and killed. Dead bodies were mutilated for pleasure and the evidence mostly burnt. And attesting to the claims of Hindu militants, birth canals had been unnaturally widened. Vulvas were in need of surgical repair.

Development and the Need to See Men

There is no single mechanism by which Hindu militants and a Hindutva-infiltrated state deploy angry mobs for such callous activities. In keeping with complex mechanisms for violence, ecological interventions are necessary. This includes everything from protesting state-sponsored Hindu chauvinism and exposing right-wing organizers to ameliorating poverty. One intervention strategy seems underused. Its absence leads to the human/social development sector's relative neglect of men's needs in Indian society. In this section, I am suggesting that development workers and activists dedicate themselves to meeting the concerns and needs of men -- without compromising our equal commitment to women.

To see a reduction of violent male behavior and more healthy expressions of anger, we have to transfigure the way boys are raised. This means reducing a male's exposure to neglect, hopelessness, and terror. The more boys and men have development work nourish their psychosocial needs, the more males will participate in India's aspiration for a better self -- and the less their disorders of crime, misogyny and violence will consume Indian society.

The psychological assertion underlying this intervention concept is that when men attack and brutalize women, they are not triggered by unfulfilled sexual needs or power needs, but by unfulfilled self-regard needs. Like true dignity, self-regard is the comfort with which a person exists in the world. It is the degree to which someone feels "right" versus feeling ashamed, weak, and under attack. Without self-regard, men are easily swayed by rhetoric that claims that they are under siege. That they must act by lashing out.

Regarding sexual assaults and rape as a weapon of war, feminist thought rightly demonstrates that men derive power by their sexual violence against women. However, analyzing power/control has not yielded the best prevention strategies against these crimes. Empowering women has its own value, but it will not adequately reduce violent tendencies against women. Violence does not simply come out of a pathological wish for power. Instead, research shows that a child's feelings of powerlessness gives rise to pathological coping behavior. Gender strongly configures the consequences: men learn to lash out, whereas women learn to internalize (yielding depression, multiple personalities).

A drama therapist at New York Hospital (Cornell-Westchester), Craig Haen, spoke to me about his group work with young victims of violence. Attempting to protect their battered psyches, girls tend to suffer inwardly, and boys expel part of the suffering on to the world around them. This pattern is recapitulated in India's mobs -- groups that paradoxically claim to be feeling powerlessness. Clinically and socially, male victims of violence tend to be disproportionately aggressive and physically dangerous in their expressions of frustration. What comes out of deep, involved work with severely affected boys, surprisingly, is not that they are bullies wanting to lord power over others. Rather, their experience of repeated violence causes them to interpret the smallest provocations as lethal threats to the self. They come to feel like their only option is to strike out in order to keep a threat at bay. The saddest consequence of boys raised in desperate situations is that violence becomes not only an acceptable option, but the only option. To intervene, then, means to teach flexibility in response styles, to help these boys imagine a revised sense of self and security.

Development work in India has a role in transforming violent tendencies because it collectively provides material and psychological raw material for an individual's aspirations and sense of self. Having visited and studied several non-governmental organizations in India since 1994, I have detected a culture of NGOs that sees men as hopeless partners in development (Dalit organizations being notable exceptions). NGOs have done a tremendous job of conveying such aspirations and new senses of self to women and girls. However, a pervasive "by women, for women" approach has problems, with serious ecological consequences.

The ecology may be partly upset by the way NGOs marshal Western attention by focusing on women's lives. Undergirding this is an easy law of success: examine what women need, empower them and you will effectively uplift poor families. Conversely, it has become lore that improving the economic status of men equates to giving them the resources to buy more alcohol, cigarettes, and knickknacks for themselves (not for the family).

The image of Third World men behaving like greedy creeps unfortunately satisfies the worldview of those who wish to divide and exploit the resources of the Third World. To the extent that this pervades NGO culture, it reflects our refusals to think hard enough about what men actually need in order to uplift society ecologically. Putting aside those zero-summers and Foucauldian reverse-discourse activists who would vie for as much female ascendancy as possible, women should ideally partner with men, and vice versa, rather than compete for development dollars.

As I have alluded to before, the Gujarat violence is alarming to the extent that symbolic expression is becoming literal. Those who intervene should ask why symbolically acceptable displays of rage, political fervor, and religiosity have failed these men. A psychologically-savvy prevention strategy would look to socialize young men in appropriate and effective expressions in these modes. This again would ultimately mean working to nourish the self-esteem of boys and men.

How should our development strategies be re-configured to include the welfare of men? By the time a man is violent, abusive, or criminal, interventions have limited effectiveness. Development NGOs need to show an authentic interest in the progress of men longitudinally. Grassroots and umbrella organizations must foster an atmosphere in which we pay heed to men early in their lives, attend to their life issues, and create an environment in which they can thrive. NGOs that focus on women could continue being woman-centered, but should blend in activities with men to encourage real relationships and an acknowledgement of partnership.

Finally, work with men includes involving those men thought to be perpetrators as well as those considered victims. As a victim, Anwar Hussain is at risk for continuing the cycle of violence precisely because of the atrocious attacks on his person and community that threaten to demolish his self-regard. Today's victim can become tomorrow's perpetrator. Hindutva is bad enough. A resurgent Islamic militancy all over India would add to the impossibility of religious harmony in our lifetime.

The question is whether kids like Anwar will be offered alternate sources of dignity. Men need serious models of selfhood that teach respect for women's equal status, strength in the face of peer pressure, and socially-responsible citizenship. The Hindu youth and Muslim youth each need an internal sense of security in themselves and in each other that speaks louder than the organizer who comes knocking on their door saying, "You've been attacked enough, it is time to destroy your enemy before he destroys you."

Professional Denials Serving Hindutva

For the ecological or public health approach to work, one must engage many special constituencies, among them physicians. In spite of the rampant criminality that pervaded Gujarat's rapes and maulings, many physicians did not follow medico-legal protocol for sexual assault. After life-preserving surgical treatment was provided, watchdog agencies found that forensic examination for rape was refused. In sum, professionals were motivated not to document the legal, social, and psychological rupture that affected the now surgically-repaired person. But the Gujarat medical community is not being professionally passive-aggressive. While some doctors may very well be sympathetic to the Muslim-cleansing nature of the violence, most doctors operate in an environment of aversive stimuli in which grave risk flows from making reports of wrongdoing. Fear permeates their minds. Participation as a moral agent may make a physician a target for Hindutva militants. With Gujarat votes enthusiastically adopting Hindutva governments, the doctor would be pitted against the well armed state. Documenting rape or attack by police would expose a physician's family as political enemies. Professional honesty would not be interpreted as only political, but as personal.

Hindutva forces can privately gloat over this influence. Silence on the part of the medical community helps to cover its tracks of vicious violence by saying to the international community and non-resident Hindus: "Nothing bad happened here" and "Atrocities? Pure exaggeration." As a result, the larger community is denied access to what has been done (and will then likely be done again) in the name of Hindutva.

This was not the first time I had heard a complaint against South Asian physicians in documenting viciousness. The month before doing psychotherapeutic work in Ahmedabad, I was in Sri Lanka at a meeting of the Sri Lankan Medical Association. A philosopher of ethics and my friend, Dr. Nalin Swaris, was invited to comment on medical ethics. He had just come from the hospital room of a man who had been bludgeoned to death while in police custody. Familiar with the way physicians loath being legal or political agents, Dr. Swaris argued that physicians are necessarily moral agents in the realms of justice and violence prevention. He recounted several instances in which doctors were asked to determine the cause of death for victims of police/army torture. What do the death certificates end up saying? "Cardiac arrest"... "Respiratory failure"... with no mention of human agency (blunt trauma, poisoning, or sexual violence) that could hold the authorities accountable.

To counter such collusion in India or Sri Lanka, health and human rights advocates should help champion the discourses of medical ethics and public health in addition to protecting whistle-blower physicians. Is it too much to ask that public health in India means freedom from violence, torture, and genocide? From where Gujarat is right now, this may be a mighty task, but birthing a culture of moral accountability is a minimum requirement, not a luxury, for a medical establishment. This task, however, cannot be left to medical schools and mentors. Physicians, as a community, will need to know in their bones that adherence to moral duty will be rewarded rather than punished. For this, citizens and non-resident Indians cannot continue to support a mob-mentality government that makes it a death sentence to expose crimes against humanity.

*   *   *

In addition to working with primary victims of trauma, I was asked to provide support to secondarily affected people -- those who are having flashbacks, emotional numbing, heart palpitations, and/or concentration problems as a result of hearing stories of violence and working near extreme human misery. Over thirty days, and with about 80 volunteers and relief workers, I had exchanges with humanitarian aid workers and social service-providers about their emotional wounds and work-related stress. The goal of the group work and psychotherapy was to de-pathologize personal histories of grief, anger, and loss.

I had worked with SAHR WARU for 8 two-hour sessions, and during the last session, they had some parting words.

"Thank you."

"This meant a lot to us."

"Best of everything."

"Don't forget us."

Yet most remarkable of all was: "You know, we are very happy that you came to work with us. We needed support after something like this. But now do something with the people who do these things. Please work with men."

Let this piece be an homage to SAHR WARU and Anwar Hussain, so that their testimonies are not forgotten.


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