Sudhir Kakar and the Socio-Psychological Explanation of Hindu-Muslim Communal Riots in India

By Saha, Santosh | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Sudhir Kakar and the Socio-Psychological Explanation of Hindu-Muslim Communal Riots in India


Saha, Santosh, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The "Problem"

Sudhir Kakar, who was named as "one of the 25 major thinkers of the world" by a French magazine in 2007, has written profusely about myths, rituals, shamans, doctors, the seekers, and anxiety. Kakar has a degree in engineering and economics and has taught, among others, at Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Paris, and Melbourne. He was presented with the Goethe Medal in 1998 by the German government. His novels include Mira and the Mahatma (2004). In his recent study, The Indians: Portrait of the People (2007), he makes a general statement that Indians must give up Gandhi's dream of "lasting heart unity" between the Hindus and Muslims. His significant work, The Colors of Violence (1996), looks at the 1990 Hyderabad riots, previously analysed only by sociologists, political scientists and historians. Examining religious riots from the point of view of psychoanalysis is a strength of Kakar's work. It also turns out to be its major weakness since his analysis is conducted in isolation from other disciplines.

In another great work, The Inner World (1978), Kakar links the notion of a pathology of men in a patriarchal culture to the homo hierachicus element in Indian identity. (1) Central to this link is the weak differentiation of the super-ego and the priority of the "communal consciousness". Indeed most of his early works trace a depressing "pathology" in Indian child development, observe that traditional Hindu socialization is constructed around an adverse group dimension, and provide a general picture of sustained and "pervasive pathology". (2) Among his suggested parallels between shamanism and psychoanalysis is Levi-Strauss' idea that shamanistic healing depends not so much on recovering one's own myth, but upon receiving a collective myth from one's cultural tradition. Acknowledging that superior Western psychology has a better chance to analyze Indian development of personality, in Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors (1980), Kakar depicts rural women's anger and observes a cleavage between the traditional and modern, and between the Western and Asian. The frustrations and humiliations arising from group narcissism are a chief and continuing theme in many of his works. Kakar believes these lie at the basis of violence between Hindus and Muslims, but he fails to give much in terms of a historical and anthropological understanding of Hindu-Muslim riots.

Specifically, three interconnected aspects of Kakar's account of communal conflict warrant scrutiny. These are (a) a presumption that Indian personality development creates an uncertain mental condition which, in times of social tension, gives rise to instant violence; (b) a contention that Hindu males' religious values, as agents in representation, are psychologically socialized by confrontational religious ethics; and (c) an undue conformity with the "crowd" thesis of Gustave Le Bon (1895) who, although not dear to the hearts of contemporary psychoanalysts, deserves serious assessment. Knowing that disorderly behavior is primarily the preserve of the more deviant, transient or criminal-minded sections with a predilection for antisocial or violent behaviour, (3) we may ask whether emphasis on the destructive and disordering capacities of cultural attitude potentially distorts our understanding of morality and social behavior before rioting. Does religiously-charged extreme ethnicity psychologically disable and disorganize the Indian composite cultural templates that legitimately inform everyday interaction in normal conditions?

"Postmodernity" in Riots

Postmodernity, a notion of emancipatory politics has, among others, two broad messages. Firstly, each culture has its own standards (not conforming to cultural relativism) for judging "reality", and none is inherently superior to any other. In other words, meta (grand) narrative does not explain "reality" in different situations. Critics, however, make a valid point in arguing that the reality construction is too optimistic.

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