5 weeks ago
It is easy to play 'spot the evil' when working with mutually understood and long-established signifiers. As a street theatre group, we create many of our productions on an oppressed-versus-oppressor premise and, though struggling to maintain political correctness and avoid stereotypes, we sometimes end up with some sort of a caricature who exhibits a particular inflection of the tone; unrelenting eyes; the cold, even calm, cruelty that comes from the smugness of presupposing the limitlessness of one's aggressive capabilities. In everyday life, putting one's finger on the spot and pointing to what exactly goes into the making of an evil leader is harder. Even harder is to know what crazy salad goes into the making of an Evil Leader.
Often we tend to attribute evil in leaders to some kind of madness in them, a psychological condition that makes them a freak of nature. One usually hears the term in context of someone like Hitler. Yet, in Erica Goode's New York Times piece 'Insane or Just Evil? A Psychiatrist Takes a New Look at Hitler' (17 November 1998), psychologist and neurologist Dr Fritz Redlich says that Hitler 'knew what he was doing and he chose to do it with pride and enthusiasm'. Goode summarizes, 'And while the Nazi leader was afflicted with a variety of physical ills, both real and psychogenic, he suffered from nothing severe enough to take the blame for his crimes.' We also know that he was an artist, a kind of person traditionally associated with beauty and gentleness.Evil cannot be said to be the product of a particular political ideology either. If we have violence of the right wing, including in our own country, we also have leaders like Pol Pot who actually claimed and believed that they were going to make a communist haven through their brutalities. Similarly, in the case of Stalin, it wasn't communism but his blind arrogance, suspicions and attempt to concentrate all power in his hands that sent thousands of people to Siberia to serve undefined terms for indeterminate reasons. Gulags became a metaphor for lives wasted. Of all the brutal killers to emerge from the twentieth century, Lavrenty Beria, the dreaded head of Stalin's secret police, was one of the most malign. 'Show me the man and I'll find you the crime,' he had once remarked. Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, a historian who spent thirteen years in the camps and later wrote a book about Beria, told the Daily Telegraph of London, 'The gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who built them on a mass scale. He industrialized the gulag system. Human life had no value for him.'In India the Aam Aadmi Party rode on a wave of popularity that partly came from the reassurance that the outfit is composed of common people, as underlined in its name, and therefore they would be most sympathetic to the interest of the masses. As citizens, this logic appeals to us and also shakes repetitively ineffectual leaders out of their complacency. However, like international theatre practitioner, academic and author John Britton says, having worked with communities of varying backgrounds, 'I keep hearing politicians talk of ordinary people. I am yet to meet one.' It is a naive assumption to view the entire populace as a common mass with no particularities, the rulers' victims who, once they come into power, would be extremely sensitive to the needs of their fellow beings. Mussolini said in an interview, 'I come of peasant stock. My father was a blacksmith – he gave me strength. And my mother, she was sweet and sensitive – a school teacher – a lover of poetry – she feared my tempestuous nature, but she loved me - and I loved her. Being 'one of the people' did nothing to incline him towards democracy; fascism was his unequivocal choice.Likewise, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's extreme poverty of his growing years did not make him the poor people's messiah, though it appeared quite contrary in the beginning. In the nascent years of his leadership, Hussein assumed a clear stance against orthodoxy and worked for the modernization of Iraq. It was under him that the National Campaign for Eradication of Illiteracy and the Campaign for Compulsory Free Education took off. His socialist approach made possible subsidies to farmers, redistribution of land and free hospitalization. He posed a challenge to the West with his nationalization of oil companies. Electricity reached outlying areas. Going beyond primary health care, he brought in advanced and specialized medical advancements and hospitals. Culture, theatre, literature and language were encouraged. Women were declared equal under the law and their liberation seemed the government's goal. Women's partaking of the universal education greatly benefited them and their number amongst the employed started rising. Equal pay and perks could be availed of. A year of maternity leave and public day care centres further facilitated their entry into the paid workforce. They voted and contested elections, and a number of them were elected to the National Assembly. They had the right to own property. This was the Saddam who declared, 'Pay attention to citizens’ demands and grievances and do not feel weary or bored by the persistence of these demands, because if you save a wronged person, partially or totally, you will be doing a great service to the people and the principles of your Party. The sense of injustice is a serious thing. There is nothing more dangerous than a human being who feels he is wronged, because he will turn into a huge explosive force when he feels that no one in the State or in society is on his side to redress the injustice.' In a case of double irony, in the following years he went on to blatantly contradict his own advice and meet the consequences he had warned others against. He became the symbol of repression, war crimes, systematic torture, non-judicial summary killings and ethnic persecution. The sense of injustice in people had indeed become 'a serious thing'; it was almost as if Hussein had provided the ladder to them himself, on which the people were to climb and pull him to the ground.
Despite their excesses, many of these statespeople often made what are usually seen as those little kinds of kindness – eating with hutdwellers, accepting flowers from children. But clearly tokenism or even momentary lapses into kindness cannot make up for the countless heads that were made to roll. And therefore we know that in its external manifestation evil does not really come having borrowed the devil's horns and tail.
Going through the gory pages of history, one likes to believe that such tragedies were a thing of the past, that with time we naturally start becoming more 'civilized', more humane. But have we really been successful in leaving evil far behind? Have genocides, ethnic cleansing, religious riots, executions stopped? Are we not using our technological advancement to create elaborate instruments of torture? One shudders to admit that these are the very products of our own fantasies and 'vision'. Even the past is kept alive in those of us who extend support to the above-mentioned leaders, who loudly wonder whether they were 'really that bad'. Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi feels like standing up for Mussolini; in Iran a filmmaker is put under house arrest and banned from pursuing his artistic activities, which, as far as the director is concerned, is the same as banning him from being.
We brand a man Mahatma and when called upon to practise his teachings, we roll our eyes and plead that he is an 'extra'ordinary creature and, in all fairness and pragmatism, we cannot be expected to emulate him. It is not about whether one likes Gandhi or his opposed to him or worships some other hero. The example is to show what we do when we make someone a hero. We put that person on a pedestal, divorce ourselves from them except to raise our hands in salutation and rescue ourselves from having to follow high ideals and goals. We forget that the hero is an ordinary person trying to do something more. The same psychological pattern is at work when we see one individual as the repository of evil and forget that they weren't born with a dark shadow looming over them. They chose a certain path and were strengthened in their designs by a lot of people, people like us. We should remember that while many were coerced to follow, several others chose to heartily accept such people as their leaders because some of the promises they held out made perfect sense to the 'lunatic', the 'freak', the 'evil' in us – the promise of exclusivity, the reward of being the chosen elect replete with privileges. Then we start supporting leaders who eliminate millions simply because they, with the support of some other millions, can. This is how most people's oppressor became a few people's hero. This darkest face of evil is best portrayed in the film Inglorious Basterds when 'the hunter', adept at sniffing out Jews, gives the matter-of-fact spinechilling statement that they want to end the race simply because they do not like them, just as one dislikes rats.
Many of us who may still believe in sound logic also falter when we give in to stereotypes of how a leader should be. We dismiss their repressive policies as a much-needed measure dealt out by a strong hand. It's not much different from how some parents would still believe that a spared rod is tantamount to a spoilt child. Of course we do not acknowledge such manifestation of evil in ourselves till some of us are arrested, our acts finally labelled as crimes, for torturing our children and some, for violating our domestic help.
And when we know this, when we know that evil lives and thrives among us even today, we also have to deal with the fact that we, the 'common people', are also hosts to it. As aam junta, we would never admit that we have anything to do with evil. We would say we have foibles, yes, but we mean well, and we are merely trying to eke out an honest living for ourselves while indulging in the occasional charity. We would be plaintive that if at all, we are at the receiving end: inflation happens, murders and robberies occur in the daylight, and yet we plod on, determined in our struggle.
But let us first examine how we often behave in groups, deriving our power – when it has not been officially sanctioned to us – from numbers. Khap panchayats, which hardly compare to the other more formal and organized leaderships, easily order rapes and murders to perpetuate the evil of patriarchy. A protest against rape takes place and some nameless, faceless men make it an opportunity to grope and molest some more, again taking refuge in numbers and blending with the crowds before they can be caught.
If we find ourselves wincing at these associations, let's poof away these crowds and face the looking glass as individuals, many of us, 'decent' folks who may not believe in the authority of khaps or engage in direct violence, still participate in patriarchy from the moment of chalking out our daughter-in-law's functions in her marital space to the time of fixing our daughter's 'age limit' for marriage. Why does a parent and a rapist have the same question to ask of the girl, 'What are you doing outside so late at night?' Why are blackmailers so snug in the knowledge that a woman would choose to succumb to them because otherwise she is sure to be punished, even ostracized, by her own family and community? If we cry out foul that the police is deaf to women's complaints of harassment, why do we shush them up when they report exploitation within the home? Are we going to be outraged at these connections and turn away? Will we be hurt and say these are harsh and cruel labels for pure-hearted souls? Or look ourselves in the eye and decide that we do not just wish and mean well but also do well, not just assume we are pure but are also capable of identifying the impurities that creep in and weeding them out, preparing to understand these connections and disallowing ourselves from cradling evil?
Evil grows because of the passivity or paucity of goodness. We have to be as, if not more, firmly assertive and proactive in carrying out 'goodness' in order to give stiff competition to the aggressive directors of operations of evil, or to ruthlessly scrub off the traces of it inside us. It is fitting that the book V for Vendetta by Alan Moore is now being suggested to be made part of prescribed curriculum, in which the protagonist states, 'Since mankind's dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so they took our power. By doing nothing we gave it away.'
First published in The Equator Line, April-June 2014.