Image: Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning, 2017, Video stills, Single channel video, color, sound, 85 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
The following text is excerpted from “Such a Morning,” a film by Amar Kanwar and the introduction to a new open access book, Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech (Amherst College Press and Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2022).
Looking back at India—the country’s birth as a nation and the later execution of its imagination—it’s hard not to see large-scale violence at every stage. In the last few months and years we have returned to 1947 almost as if to replay the massacres of its conception only to kill the ones who somehow survived.
Often the scale and spectrum of violence have been so widespread that it’s difficult to get a sense of it. When you cannot see all parts of the violence, some of it becomes invisible; the rest becomes normalized even when people don’t necessarily like it or fully approve, because they come to terms with it, accept it, and forget. And then, accidentally, you suddenly get a little insight.
Once on a research tour in a rural part of India, sometime late in the 1990s, I came across a tarmac road that began from nowhere and ended nowhere between the fields, forests, and sloping hills. No one knew why this road was made. Some said it was supposed to connect rural tribal markets with the city, but that didn’t make sense because there was nothing at either end of the road. Perhaps it was an administrative error. People eventually stopped wondering and talking about it. Ten years later, the rationale for the road became clear. The line of tarmac connected two parts of an industrial mining complex. To understand, all you needed to do was to follow the mineral veins and sources of water. What kind of a modern state was this that could conceive of such deception nearly a decade in advance? This was not about acquiring a small plot of land but about taking over entire hill ranges, rivers, and agricultural lands based on geological surveys of mineral deposits. It was clear that the government had never asked for the permission of affected communities. A bewildered population had only just begun to slowly grasp the meaning of what had occurred. It is stunning to imagine the scale and impact of such violence and even tougher to accept. How can we understand the uprooting of these communities and the destruction of their lands, forests, and rivers by toxic waste? Now, the ecological, social, and cultural devastation is clear to see. What kind of a state does this to its own people?
Alongside this process of acquisition and extraction has been a series of popular nonviolent and violent resistances, but often the more powerful—local and central governments, individual politicians, corporate lobbyists, mercenaries—have pushed through, either by complex manipulations or directly with force using the police and various armies. This dynamic causes one to feel inspired and outraged but also broken, indifferent, exhausted, or helpless. The scale and complexity of the violence are too large and one looks away—remains silent—and lets the madness continue.
In the last decade, there have been about two hundred thousand suicides by Indian farmers. Unofficial figures are a lot higher. It is hard to accept that there has been no political or civil society initiative, no activist force of any kind, that could have brought this nation to a grinding halt because of these suicides. Quite obviously we have failed at many levels. We haven’t been able to offer a viable alternative political, cultural, and economic vision of the future. Even though the state often comes across as a brutal and amorphous system, it is quite clear that the system doesn’t just act on its own. It obfuscates even as it continuously builds systemic impunity. Some real people make several small decisions every day within this system to make it work the way it does.
Why are we able to discriminate, kill each other, and destroy the earth with such regularity and ease? It is difficult to comprehend our recurring silent desire for violence, the unshakeable prejudice, and our bewildering selective indifference to a series of crimes enacted on humans, animals, birds, and the earth. How can we keep harnessing all our strength and capacity to argue for and sustain this seeming death wish regardless of its obvious consequences? In the last decade, our multiple neuroses have been tapped into digitally; we’ve experienced the real time transmission, use, and manipulation of our inner selves across the world. How does one now proceed or live in this context? Are we missing something here? Is there a blind spot by any chance? Have we forgotten what we have forgotten? Another sense perhaps?
When the monks looked into their own hearts and in their own pain for a way out, they said to themselves, “Whatever the way may be, I must not return pain for pain, evil for evil. The action is the embryo from which the future will arise. There are no priorities, no short term gains; the action is as important as the future and the future is as important as the action.”
But then I asked, “What is the action?”
And a monk said that the action is first the decision to be nonviolent. And I asked, “How is that the action?” And he said that to be nonviolent is not to withdraw from conflict but to actively intervene.
“But then what tools do I have to intervene?” I asked.
And he said the greatest tool is the decision itself, for once you make the decision then you devise the strategy. The nonviolent decision calls for an extreme position where violence is understood, sometimes even excused, but never ever justified. But this is only half the decision. The other half means active intervention because it has to change the script of the play, otherwise the victims and aggressors will justifiably keep changing clothes forever.
I have a thousand new questions now.
“Only if you make the decision can you have new questions,” he replied.
“Can the nonviolent decision create an entirely different technique for intervention?” I asked.
“Use reason, and not force,” he replied.
“But if reason finds no response?”
“Use every opportunity to push your position and retreat the moment you realize that you are wrong.”
“How can I push my position if I do not demonstrate my strength without force?”
The old monk took a while before he replied but did so with a question. “Can you find a way to persuade your opponent to retreat and, at the same time, genuinely enhance the dignity of the opponent?” he asked.
“I could answer but can you tell me how to triumph without being victorious?”
“By showing that you are prepared to die for your cause but without destroying your opponent.”
“How can I be so deeply committed without believing that I hold the absolute truth?”
“You can, because your absolute truth is in fact the relativity of truths and it can only be achieved by perfecting the art and practice of nonviolence.”
I went silent for a while and then began to question again, this time only inside my head. What if a crime continues to occur in spite of patience, humility, and dialogue? And what does one do if a crime continues to occur regardless of the enormous evidence available? Then is the crime invisible or the evidence invisible or are both visible but not seen? Maybe the crime has become an expanding and accumulating process? If I do not understand the meaning of loss, its scale, its extent, its multiple dimensions, how can I even know what it is that is lost? How would I really know? Which language has the capability to sense and reveal this spectrum of intergenerational loss? Sometimes language is inadequate, it doesn’t even know how to say it. Sometimes you need multiple languages, various vocabularies, and a range of sensations to be able to just enter that zone of comprehension. But often the terrain is fixed, a bureaucracy of violence punishes every articulation, expression becomes transgression, the consequences of which are fatal, and the silence that follows becomes invisible again.
Central to the notion of crime is the question of evidence. When you look at any crime, it is investigated by an agency, the police, or the criminal justice system of any society. The process of justice is based on an investigation that is in turn based on the collection of evidence. Only evidence defined as permissible by law is presented in court—all other evidence is dismissed as invalid. The carefully crafted texts of the law tell us what is permissible and what is not. They analyze the “permissible” evidence; they then come to an understanding and make a conclusion that all must finally accept. Is legally valid evidence adequate to understand the meaning and extent of a crime? What if the given definition of what is “permissible” and “impermissible” evidence is incorrect? What vocabulary is needed to talk about a series of simultaneous disappearances occurring across multiple dimensions of life?
What if poetry was presented as evidence in a specific criminal or political trial? Not metaphorically or esoterically but poetry formally presented as evidence in one of its multiple forms? What if we could consider, evaluate, and compare the nature of the insights and forms of comprehension that you may then acquire about the scale, meaning, and implications of the crime? Would there be a sudden moment of comprehension? Would we then pause?
But what does one do if the crime still continues to occur? Could it be that we have been looking in the wrong direction? Maybe the scene of crime is elsewhere? Maybe one needs to rewind and think again, find another way.
What might be a collective strategy and structure of our response in such a future? How can it address the desire for violence, the pleasure of vengeance, the delusion of self-deception by those of us who claim to work towards greater justice? When I asked this question recently, to a nomad in India, a camel and sheep herder, he replied immediately without a pause, “There is so much blood now, accumulated here, deep in the soil, all over, that the only way to begin is with generosity.”
Click here to read an interview about Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech between editors Carin Kuoni, Laura Raicovich, and Public Seminar intern Lindsey Scharold.
Amar Kanwar is an artist and filmmaker based in New Delhi, India.