Scapegoating and the Art of Politics in India

With increasing extreme-right wing views taking over the global political discourse, there is a view that scapegoating has become a part of political discourse in this ‘post-truth’ era. However it can be argued that this art has been present in different places in different time periods and ‘post-truth’ itself is not a new phenomenon. A scapegoat is a person or a group unjustly blamed for something bad that has happened in the community.  These scapegoats are often chosen from ‘safe’ groups, who occupy lower social positions and enjoy less power in society, because they are often powerless to fight back and the risk of retaliation is less. India with its diverse ethnic, caste, linguistic, regional groups, with gender and class thrown in, doesn’t lack groups for politicians to scapegoat for some issue or the other. One of the earliest examples of scapegoating can be found in Valmiki’s Ramayana where Shambuka, a Shudra (low caste) ascetic  is killed by Rama after people complain that his yajna(sacrificial rite) is the reason for death of many Brahmin boys in his kingdom.

Witchcraft can be seen as a common example for this phenomenon where women were blamed for death of a person or an illness and were subject to abuses and even death. These are not just ancient practices but are still practiced in today’s India and are motivated by politics of this day. Many women, especially widows, in Adivasi regions- are blamed for witchcraft, so as to take hold of their land, as land is a precious resource in these mineral-rich and forest-laden regions. Village politics plays an influential role in these witch-hunts. Soma Chaudhary, in her paper on witch hunts in tea plantations, found direct involvement of Janguru or the village headman in nearly 25% of such cases and village trials leading to witch-hunts in nearly 30% of cases she studied. She further argues that these witch-hunts are reactions against excesses of plantation economy by Adivasi migrant workers of which these ‘witches’ are made scapegoats.

Sociologist Stanley Cohen explains how folklore or media scapegoat a group, often a minority, as immoral, responsible for all ill, which has transgressed from social norm and is thus deserving of control and punishment which leads to moral panic. Politicians have time and again blamed donning of western attire and modern outfits by Indian women for diminishing Indian culture and increasing sexual assaults.

For all the downfalls of reservation, the blame for the negatives of reservation have always fallen on SCs and STs, though OBCs do form a larger category of reserved seats in many states. We can see clearly how scapegoating evolves out of stereotypes and how scapegoats are often projected as vile and heavily criticized. There is a stereotype that people from quotas are undeserving pushing out well-performing meritorious students. Though some studies have concluded on the positive impact of reservation in higher education and that it doesn’t hurt efficiency in labour-force, critics have focused on how quality of educational institutes have reduced due to reservations. Many Dalit students have committed suicides, not able to bear the constant casteist assaults, stemming from these stereotypes.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis suggests that when an agent gets frustrated at something beyond his control and when he doesn’t fulfill his goal, he releases his sentiments of aggression created by frustration on less powerful groups, i.e., the scapegoat. The various dominant groups like Patils, Marathas, and Jats have asked for backward status and Marathas have also called for dilution of the 1989 POA Act. More than reservation, it is a reaction to limited capacity of the government to create more jobs and points to more serious issues like an economic and agrarian crisis. This explains why many people join these movements during the off-season of farming. The groups calling for backward status, demand employment opportunities but due to limited jobs and increasing standards of selection for job along with slump in agriculture; they are frustrated and this frustration is diverted to attacks on reservation system.

People supporting Black Lives Matter in India, will do well to realize that statistics are skewed in their own backyard too with proportion of Dalits and Muslims languishing in jails higher than their demographic proportions in the country and states.  

Politicians have always tried to divert the real issues people are facing and the real reasons behind an issue; instead they create a scapegoat to attract attention to less important or false issues. We have seen this time and again whenever a ruling party tries to ride against the anti-incumbent sentiments of promises not delivered. Be it politics trying to whip up communal frenzy and trying to scapegoat a community just before elections or any type of hate speech used by a political worker belonging to any political party. During the Chennai floods, the real reasons of the flooding was building complexes in riverbeds, however the brunt of damage-control was bore solely by people living in slums who were relocated to different areas. This is because they are easy and safe targets to be used as a scapegoat. The art of scapegoating is not a new phenomenon in Indian politics, however continuously attacking a community can prove to be very toxic to our society and we need to be increasingly vigilant of any attempt at scapegoating and actively oppose it. It’s tempting to say ‘I don’t want to get involved’ but as the haunting poem of Martin Niemoller goes ‘Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me’.

Indumathi S