Dr. Kamal Arora: Reflections On Kangana's Tweet And The Language Of Violence

Her call for "eradication" led me to reflect on genocidal language, communal violence, 1984, and the terms we use to label violence

Dr. Kamal Arora
February 11, 2021 | 3.5 min. read

Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut’s tweet on February 3rd, couched in the context of a long string of jarring missives about the Farmers’ Protest in Delhi, created an uproar among netizens around the world. By February 4th, after scores of people reported the tweet to Twitter Support, it had been taken down for violating the rules of the social medium.

The tweet led me to reflect on genocidal language, communal violence, 1984, and the terms we use to label violence. 

Despite its ambiguities, an argument can be made that the above tweet uses genocidal language. What’s less clear is the target. Who exactly is this ‘process of eradication’ targeting? As a standalone tweet, the ‘cancer in the body of this nation’ is ambiguous, though anyone reviewing her other recent tweets may make inferences based on their themes.

But what might genocidal language look like, and how exactly is genocide defined? 

The most obvious linkage between Ranaut’s tweet and the definition of genocide is the word eradicate.

Genocide has been described as a process which works to “eradicate a category of people” (Roth 2002: ix–x), an event where the State—or fractions of it with access to the State apparatus—leads organized crime and “[instrumentalizes] categories and history to organize violence against specific groups of its own population in order to achieve hegemony” (de Lame 2007).

Post-Independence, there has been much debate as to how exactly we name violence in South Asia. Terms such as “communal violence,” “genocides,” “pogroms,” “massacres,” and “riots” (the latter indicating spontaneity), have all been used for such violent events.  There are ideological and methodological differences in the various terms used, and no clear distinctions can be made between them.

The discourse of genocide, in particular, is often described as an issue of quantity (where large-scale violence is seen as more devastating than smaller-scale violence). Thus, the difference between genocide and other forms of violence, in popular usage at least, seems to be one of scale. Yet, a focus on numbers ignores the very real suffering, loss and grief brought about by violent acts. The term’s definitions are also couched in an international legal framework (see here).  Although the language and terminology of communal violence have their importance in human rights and jurisprudence frameworks, these words can sometimes mean little to survivors of 1984.

To me, it has always been important to use the nomenclature that survivors themselves have used. For example, 1984 survivors have referred to this event as khoon-kharabi (literally, ruining blood), thaka (to be shaken, to push), hamla (the attack), kaali raat (black night), ghallughara (a massacre, great attack, or bloodbath, sometimes referred to as meaning a genocide or holocaust). At times, survivors simply refer to this violence as churasee (’84) or jo hoya si (what happened). 

These overlapping terms show that there is a flexibility in naming the violence, which allows multiple understandings of what occurred. The various debates around naming show that violence itself can have many names. The insistence of using one term over another, outside of legal frameworks, can at times feel like a futile exercise, yet at the same time, illustrates beliefs about violence and one’s experience of it. 

The ways in which communities name violence reveals underlying beliefs about the nature of it. This applies to a full spectrum of views, whether you are describing a violent event that occurred in your own community, or advocating for a ‘process of eradication.” As history teaches us, words matter. Words can be harmful. Words can be violent and are often used to incite egregious acts.  

After reflecting on recent discourse vilifying and othering those involved in the Farmers’ Protest, in my opinion, it is just as important to think about how we name violence as it is to recognize and address violent language when we see it. 

Kamal Arora holds a PhD in Anthropology from UBC. Her PhD research focused on gender, communal violence, and Sikh practice. She also holds a graduate degree in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies. She served as Co-Director of the South Asian Studies Institute at UFV from 2017 - 2018 and has taught as a sessional instructor in Anthropology and Asian Studies at UFV, UBC, and KPU. Dr. Arora is an anti-racism and equity, diversity and inclusion advocate and now works in the non-profit sector.  


References: 

de Lame Danielle. 2007. Anthropology and Genocide. Mass Violence and Resistance Research Network. November 4. Available at: https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/fr/document/anthropology-and-genocide.html

Roth, Kenneth. 2002. "Foreword." In Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide, edited by Hinton Alexander Laban. University of California Press. pp. ix-xii.


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