Torture victims at the Genocide Museum, Cambodia
Years ago, an agitated Turkish scholar in Washington gave me a book on torture. It was a handbook meant not for the victims, physicians or human rights activists who fight torture, but for torturers. The one who gave me the book was outraged by it; she thought it to be a weird instance of America’s cultural decadence induced by its global dominance. Shoddily printed, published from a small town, and sprinkled with ghoulish humour and line drawings to help readers and users, it was a mail-order book reportedly circulating widely and openly. And when reading the text, one could not miss the writer’s sadomasochistic glee in detailing the actual process and technology of torture.
For all I know, the book might have been a tongue-in-cheek effort to tap the fantasies of readers the way pornographic books or movies try to do, and to make some quick money. Esoteric business ventures are not unknown in the United States. Yet, strangely enough, despite all attempts of the author to banish ethics and compassion from the text, the book made it obvious that torture was a form of human relationship. It was a distorted, pathological, extreme form of relationship, but a relationship nonetheless.
This relationship is always triangular. It involves the victim, the torturer, and the onlookers, the ones who know of organized torture in their society but condone it or remain silent. The novelist, Bernhard Schlink, calls them “accommodators” or “accepters”. They justify their passive complicity in the name of higher values that range from public order and country’s territorial integrity to abolition of terrorism and the defence of the Constitution. Paradoxically, democratic Constitutions do not sanction torture, and torture by state agencies in democracies becomes a game of fighting one attack on the Constitution with another. The only difference is that, while the secessionists or terrorists come from outside legitimate politics, torture by state agencies comes from inside and subvert legitimate politics.
There is a fourth set of actors in the politics of torture — the citizens and organizations fighting torture. Their focus is naturally on the victims and the perpetrators, and this is as it should be. But, to prevent society from being sucked into a culture of torture, one must never forget the onlookers. For, they are the ones who ensure the continuity of torture as an institution. More so in societies where there is an over-concern with the happenings in the high streets of politics and cultivated forgetfulness about the alleys or backwaters.
In my youth, I read Frantz Fanon’s comments on the use of torture during the Algerian freedom struggle. At the time, Fanon was a non-person in India’s knowledge industry. Brainwashed by bloodthirsty, crude versions of Marxism, the Indian Left ignored him as an esoteric Francophone intellectual but my discipline then, psychoanalytic sociology, brought me close to him. This paid me rich dividends. Fanon tore through my innocence when describing how the torturer carried the nature of his ‘work’ with him into his family and personal life, and could not protect himself from the ravages of his “public service”. Like his victims, the torturer, too, was vulnerable to psychogenic and psychosomatic ailments and the consequences of traumata.
Probably a small proportion of the torturers do have a sadomasochistic streak. When they come to torture inadvertently — through posting, transfer or promotion — they come to enjoy their job. It clicks with something deep within them of which they were not aware earlier. It is a bit like the ordinary, cool-headed police and army officials and members of the policy elite, who run into accounts of torture in the media or secret official reports, and slowly develop a taste for them. A few of them may even eroticize their violent predispositions and what was previously ethically reprehensible, illegal, instrumental violence becomes a passionate, pleasurable and pornographic venture, serving similar needs of the invisible power-wielders who control the torturers and for a section of the onlookers. Torture then begins to become an end in itself and part of a psychopathic venture. And those involved in it are sucked deeper into the dark world of sadomasochism.
It is not easy to produce a killer or torturer. At the end of World War II, it was found that only 15 to 20 per cent of the soldiers actually fired their guns in the battlefield. These soldiers were well-trained and brave; they did not flinch in battle. But it was easier to be brave than to master the art of killing. Of course, the army establishments, when they saw the data, were not amused. They did not value bravery that much; they wanted soldiers to be efficient killing machines. They made drastic changes in training methods. In the Korean war, the percentage of bullets fired to kill rose to 70 per cent; in Vietnam it was around 95 per cent.
Modern armies now produce killers and some regimes also make sure that they have a steady supply of torturers to meet exigencies. To train them, they also set up institutions that condone torture and justify it. Dave Grossman argues in his book, On Killing, that homicide is a difficult art to master. For, resistance to killing is part of being human. To train a person to torture in a face-to-face situation, the trainer faces even tougher hurdles.
However, that resistance can be weakened. Using the work of the political psychologists, Herbert Kelman and Stanley Milgram, one can specify three conditions under which inner resistance to killing — and torture — weakens: when death and torture can be inflicted as part of a role; when legitimate authorities, such as political leaders and qualified scientists, sanction it; and when, through propaganda or education, target groups are successfully demonized.
Once the resistance is broken, torture can be made to look like an unavoidable adjunct of statecraft and national security systems. The practice of torture then outlives the goals for which it might have been set up in the first place — to intimidate enemies of the state, to extract information from terrorists, or to contain dissenters or prospective rebels. The culture of torture does not end when the victims die or the torturers disappear or retire, for the culture has by then become independent of its victims and perpetrators and entered the interstices of the polity.
We all know this but pretend that we do not. When militancy in Punjab ended in the 1990s, it did not mean that the culture of torture, secret killings and disappearances ended. The Punjab police had, by then, acquired many of the features of their enemy. They were available for settling property disputes, abducting unwanted bridegrooms on behalf of choosy or conservative parents, and for arbitrating between quarrelling businessmen — all for a fee, of course. In Kashmir, too, the police and the army have come to resemble the terrorists in most respects, with the ordinary citizens caught between two sets of terrorists and torturers. And we all know about the Bhagalpur blindings. I sometimes wonder what kind of India we shall see after the anti-Maoist and anti-terrorist operations are successfully completed.
When torture is normalized in society, if you restrain or discipline one set of torturers, new recruits take their place. Like hangmen, they come from the bottom of society, from communities or families with limited life chances. I have heard earnest feminists shrilly demanding the death sentence preceded by torture for all rapists and molesters; aggrieved family members seeking the death sentence for murderers; and flamboyant nationalists lobbying for the death penalty for all terrorists and spies. If one grants all such pleas, the number of hangings in India will surely be in tens of thousands and will require a large contingent of hangmen. Yet, none of the lobbyists have ever offered to train themselves or their children as full-time executioners. Nor have they pleaded for job reservations for specific castes and communities when selecting hangmen or for a corps of women executioners to ensure gender equity. Such enjoyable, high-status jobs are left permanently reserved for other people’s children. Usually, in the whole of South Asia, executions are the prerogative of the Dalits and the low-castes. This is so even in the officially caste-less Islamic republic of Pakistan.
Torture is not possible in law-governed, democratic societies unless official doctors give false medical reports that whitewash torture injuries or dishonest death certificates when the tortured die. Higher rungs of the police and the bureaucracy and their political handlers, too, have to be a part of the protection racket. These are signs of the inroads that the practice of torture has made in Indian society. Soon, public opinion polls should be able to tell us, as they have done in the US, that a majority of the country favours the use of torture with those having information about the future plans of terrorists.
Actually, the Indian state has never dismantled the glorious Imperial tradition in this respect. Occasional lip service is paid to the memories of freedom fighters who were victims of torture, and the notorious torture sites, such as the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, have become popular tourist spots. But few have questioned the system that broke the body and spirit of the freedom fighters, sometimes driving them to lunacy or suicide.
Torture, in the long run, does what no militancy or terrorism can do. It teaches society to accept cruelty as a way of life and a normal means of settling political and ideological debates and personal scores. At that point, a country can as well give up fighting its dedicated enemies, for it has become, psychologically and ethically, a mirror image of its enemies. There is nothing left to fight for or protect.