The threats over the screening of Padmavati (or Padmavat) once again highlight the extent to which violence intervenes in our civic life. To be sure, there is no city in the world that is completely free of the problem. From crimes of passion to organised gangs, cities have always had to deal with those generating violence. But the perpetrators of violence rarely get the moral righteousness of the city on their side. Gangsters like Al Capone may have had complete sway over Chicago in the 1920s, but the city did not believe he was morally right. It is this moral line that is being regularly crossed in Indian cities.

Crossing the line into violence is often done under cover of anonymity of the mob. The perpetrators of the large-scale murder of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, or the carnage in urban spaces in Gujarat nearly two decades later, tried to function as part of a faceless mob. The justification for the violence was then provided in whispers, whether it was the need to kill innocent Sikhs because Indira Gandhi’s assassins belonged to the same faith, or to murder other innocents for the crimes of members of their faith. But the advocacy of violence in Indian cities is not always done through whispers. The demand for a ban on Padmavati has been accompanied by threats of violence on national television.

Convenient labels

It is tempting to treat these threats as the result of uneducated, backward elements creeping into our urban spaces from the hinterland. This has sometimes led anchors of English language television shows to switch to Hindi when asking questions of representatives of the Karni Sena. But in their responses these representatives try to use the articulation of an educated mind. They have sometimes responded pointedly in English to questions asked in Hindi. The popular assumption that those who advocate and resort to violence are necessarily uneducated may need some reconsideration.

Indeed, if we were to take a dispassionate view we cannot completely rule out the possibility of education even contributing to violence gaining a place in the discourses in our cities. This claim may appear counter-intuitive but becomes more plausible when we take a closer look at three major types of urban violence: violence related to urban crime, violence that results from an angry response to specific events, and violence that is advocated even in calmer times.

It is likely that in the realm of crime, education may have a negative impact on urban violence. To the extent that the educated criminal mind would be able to loot large amounts of money through advanced technological systems, there may be distaste for the crudity of everyday urban violence. The violence that emerges from anger may be neutral to levels of education. Anecdotal evidence of road rage does not suggest any distinction between the educated and the uneducated.

The violence of education

It is in the calmer environment of urban debates that the role of educated Indians in the advocacy of violence becomes more visible. These debates, even in the shouting matches of most Indian television talk shows, require the education needed to make an apparently rational argument. The uncertainty, fears, and sense of victimhood that the advocacy of violence needs are often conveyed through the medium of apparently rational argument.

Take the case of the fears that are sought to be generated by the claim that Hindus, despite currently accounting for around 80 per cent of the Indian population, will in the foreseeable future be reduced to a minority. The data provided in support of this claim will not withstand scientific scrutiny, but the very use of data requires some level of education.

What makes matters worse in Indian cities is that education has been used to build a case for violence to achieve what would otherwise be very desirable goals. Few would challenge the need for a more equitable society that would remove the variety of extreme forms of discrimination that exist in India.

The educated Indian mind can explore the nature of this discrimination in great detail. And the extreme levels of deprivation can be used to make a case for revolutionary change, even if that involves extreme violence.

This justification for violence may have begun as a response to extreme and apparently unchanging discrimination.

But what is considered extreme and unchanging has itself changed over time. Groups that were once considered dominant, and were even proud of their dominance, have begun to prefer seeing themselves as victims. And in this aggressive inter-group competition what is needed to spur violence is not active discrimination against them but just the charge of others being ‘appeased’.

In the socially complex and competitive reality of Indian cities, the more educated a community the greater its ability to build a case for violence.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru