Toying With Human Rights – On Genocides, Massacres And Riots

Ritwik Tyagi

30 Dec 2022 9:00 AM GMT

  • Toying With Human Rights – On Genocides, Massacres And Riots

    In the words of Voltaire, those who can make you believe absurdities; can just as easily make you commit atrocities. This phrase holds a significant amount of truth about what goes on behind the smokescreen of genocides, massacres and riots. On the face of it, these mass atrocities appear to be the consequences of an irretrievable breakdown of dialogue between groups differing on matters...

    In the words of Voltaire, those who can make you believe absurdities; can just as easily make you commit atrocities. This phrase holds a significant amount of truth about what goes on behind the smokescreen of genocides, massacres and riots. On the face of it, these mass atrocities appear to be the consequences of an irretrievable breakdown of dialogue between groups differing on matters of ideologies, rituals, beliefs or practices, so much so that they cannot even tolerate any divergences from their set of accepted dogma. However, the case doesn’t always remain as mathematically simple as that when we peek behind the curtains at the activities of those puppeteers who are fiddling with the socio-political, cultural and economic equations that exist in society. Literary accounts of genocides, massacres and riots have proven to be really useful tools of study in the pursuit of connecting dots on the who, why, what, when and how behind the orchestration of these atrocities. Going through stories connected to mass atrocities committed during the Partition of India, Holocaust and the Parsley Massacre has made it apparent that the people who participated in these tragedies were being controlled through strings of the puppet-master who was toying around with their human rights.

    At the root of all tragedies amongst the ranks of genocides, massacres and riots, there lies a tale centering around the element of a crisis of identity. History is replete with examples of religions, communities and even entire nations descending into varying scales of frenzy in the face of affronts to their foundational identity. In literary accounts too, from Train to Pakistan and Tamas, to Farming of Bones and The Book Thief, the underlying theme at the heart of despair weaving their fabrics together is that of a battle for guarding identities – be it religious, racial, ethnic or national. What is it though about these identities that is feeble enough to make people become a part of mass atrocities? Is there a social, political and economic context that precedes these identity crises and their concomitant occurrence of atrocities?

    The term genocide was first used in 1943 by the Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who blended the Latin word cide, that means to kill, with the Greek word genos, which refers to a genetic group such as a race or tribe. Lemkin had fought to have genocide recognised as a crime under international law after experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, in which everyone in his family but his brother became a victim. This led to the formulation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, simply known as the Genocide Convention, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 to take measures for preventing any further acts of genocide and obligating States to punish any individual, whether a constitutional ruler, public official or a private individual for genocidal acts stipulated in the Convention.

    Article II of this Convention describes the scope of genocide as the commission of certain acts with the intent to destroy a national, ethical, racial or religious group. These acts include killing members of any such group, causing mental or bodily harm to them, inflicting such conditions of life upon members of the group as have been calculated to bring their destruction, imposing restrictions that prevent births within the group, and, transferring children of this group to another group. There are various ways in which genocides take place, including acts that can be categorised as massacres, riots, pogroms, ethnic cleansings and numerous others. While massacres, riots or ethnic cleansing may not in themselves be classified as crime under the scope of international law, in several cases they have the combined effect of constituting genocide, take for example the Holocaust and the Rwandan massacre.

    The question sought to be answered through this analysis is whether, through patterns shown in literature, mass atrocities are a result of definite orchestration by ideological forces prevailing in the social, economic and political context, or is it, to put it simply, an unfortunate clash of identities that spirals into an uncontrollable theatre of bloodshed?

    Role of Literature – The gory spectacle of human rights violations created by genocides, riots and massacres have led to the birth of an entire genre of literature around them which seeks to capture stories of denial of human rights to their characters. Not only does this form of literature capture stories, but it also serves as a mechanism of protest and dissent against the manner in which human rights are fiddled with by orchestrating these haunting instruments of disaster. The purpose of literature surrounding these incidents is important from this perspective since it spreads stories of gloom and brings their futility out into the open. The actions of telling and listening to stories depicting genocides, massacres and riots in an as-they-played-out manner is a means to generate empathy among people towards human rights violations[1]. The significance of developing empathy and understanding is reflected in Desmond Tutu’s words, “If, by reading...we are enabled to step, for one moment, into another person’s shoes, to get right under their skin, then that is already a great achievement. Through empathy we overcome prejudice, develop tolerance and ultimately understand love. Stories can bring understanding, healing, reconciliation and unity.

    It is through this form of literature and storytelling that the socio-political sentiment on upholding human rights can be collectively raised. The success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa in establishing a channel for recording the testimonials of perpetration of gross human rights violations are a testament to the power and grip that stories hold in creating a feeling of empathy for the trauma undergone by one’s fellow humans. It is only through this sense of empathy and sentiment of being human that a narrative against human rights violations can be constructed and sustained. Thus, the role of literature in recounting stories concerning the toying of human rights in genocides, massacres and riots is quite an essential one, as Pramod K. Nayar emphasizes in his book Human Rights and Literature: Writing Rights.

    Stories of Atrocities – Let us take a few examples to evaluate the nuances involved in storytelling that is designed to evoke empathy in the minds of its readers. In Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, published in 1956, the plot revolves around the events taking place during the Partition of India in a fictional Indian village known as Mano Majra that is situated near the country’s border with Pakistan. The village is occupied mainly by members of both Sikh and Muslim religions and an air of peace, calm and harmony is projected to prevail there despite an awareness that the country was being partitioned into two on religious lines. Although both religions were operated in their own spaces through Imam Baksh and Bhai Meet Singh, the lines separating them were blurred to an extent in the way the villagers identified themselves as inhabitants of Mano Majra, rather than aligning with any side on the basis of their faith.

    Even when the villagers learnt that the Muslims were being transported through trains to Pakistan, the Muslims of Mano Majra had not yet placed themselves in a position where they thought their identity would be under attack by staying behind. One of the Muslim inhabitants clears the air on this point by remarking[2] that “What have we to do with Pakistan? We were born here. So were our ancestors. We have lived amongst Sikhs as brothers.” The fissures in this picture of fraternity begin to appear only after the villagers witness the arrival of trains from Pakistan that are full of Sikh and Hindu dead bodies. Even then, there is no sense of hatred in any community towards the other, but an eerie shadow of fear that takes over them and converts the village into a boiling pot of communal tensions, waiting to be exploited. It is only after the Muslims were banded together and taken away for being sent on the eponymous Train to Pakistan, that a group of religious Sikh foot-soldiers come to Mano Majra and brainwashes them into brandishing a hatred for Muslims into action by massacring the Muslims leaving on the train in order to exact revenge for the train-loads of dead Sikhs that were purportedly being sent from the Muslims on the other side of the border[3].

    This sequence of events makes it clear that while there is indeed ultimately a battle of identities between two religions, this battle does not start out of nowhere or through minor clashes amongst communities. In fact, aside from the triggering actions of the Sikh agitators, there is nothing but love and respect in the midst of the inhabitants, regardless of their religious identity. At the end as well, Juggut Singh stops the massacre from taking place out of his love for a Muslim girl from the village, Nooran, who was also in the train, sacrificing his own life in the process. There is a broader, overarching framework of socio-political and economic factors that fuel the fires and instigate people to commit atrocities. In this regard, Train to Pakistan also exposes the role of administrations and police forces in manufacturing circumstances for people to participate in riots and massacres.

    For instance, the magistrate Hukum Chand is seen conspiring with the sub-inspector about arbitrarily arresting and confining to jail people who could benefit them. In one scene, the police make it a point to release a couple of Sikh gang members who had committed a dacoity to give an impression to Mano Majra villagers that they were innocent whereas the dacoity had actually been done by a group of Muslims who had migrated to Pakistan. They also create a confusion in the minds of the villagers regarding the religious identity of a visitor to their villager and give rise to the misconception that he was a member of the Muslim League who had come to cause mischief. Thus, the police are completely hands in glove with the narrative[4] to pit the Mano Majra Sikhs against the Muslims who were their tenants so that the Muslims can be pushed out of the country.

    Farming of Bones, a novel by Edwidge Danticat, focuses on the story of Amabelle, a Haitian woman working at a house in the Dominican Republic in Alegria, a small town across the Dajabon River. The Haitian workers supply cheap labour to the sugarcane plantations in the Dominican Republic and the novel very artfully picturises the class divide that exists between the Dominican plantation owners and the Haitian labourers who work for them. These differences are most apparent from the divergent paths which define the lives of Amabelle and Senora Valencia where although they were both of the same age and had grown up together, their respective positions in society were poles apart. While there had been distrust in the minds of Haitians about intentions of the Dominican government, these notions grew substantially after Senor Pico knocked Joel down the valley with his automobile and left him for dead.

    When the Generalissimo, Trujillo, begins the implementation of an ethnic cleansing program to get rid of Haitians from the country, Amabelle attempts to escape back to Haiti by crossing the Dajabon River along with several others, including her partner Sebastien and his sister Mimi. However, they get separated right in the beginning of their travels when Dominican soldiers load Haitian workers into trucks and take them away. They face all sorts of troubles along the way because the Dominicans are massacring and torturing Haitians. In order to identify a Haitian from Dominicans, the suspected persons are asked to pronounce the word parsley because unable to do so correctly[5]. Only Amabelle and Yves, a friend of Sebastien’s, are finally able to cross the Dajabon River. The fact that this novel was written as a piece of historical fiction by Danticat in 1998 in order to memorialise the stories of thousands of Haitian victims of the Parsley Massacre of 1937, goes to show the power of storytelling in literature to spread knowledge about human rights violations and tragedies as well as to raise awareness of them in people. The narrative used majorly in the novel is that of hanging on to memories of the past and retelling them so that victims of the massacre are not forgotten.

    Bhisham Sahni’s 1974 work Tamas, also set in the backdrop of the 1947 Partition, explores how ordinary peace-loving villagers get tangled into the dirty affairs of politics and are brainwashed into pursuing narrow-minded interests aligned to disintegrate the society on the basis of religion. The story is set in a small town of the Frontier Province where a sweeper, Nathu, is deceived and bribed into killing a pig by a local Muslim politician. Nathu is told that the pig is required by the village veterinarian for carrying out medical experiments. However, the day after he kills the pig, its body is found on the steps of the village mosque. This incident sparks off riots between the Hindus and Muslims by adding to the already tension-ridden relations on account of the Partition. Through this story, Sahni has quite aptly shown that when identity comes under attack, people are willing to cross all limits even though the attack on identity has been carefully constructed by external influences.

    A Marionette Show – It is essential to understand here that all of these atrocities taking place in the form of genocides, massacres and riots are nothing but a marionette show for its controllers where they can toy around with the human rights of their characters. Just as it is done in a marionette, they artistically choreograph moves of various elements and control their actions through invisible strings attached to each body part. In Tamas, as well as in Train to Pakistan and Garam Hawa, we can see that the administration is working hand-in-glove with the local politicians as well as the police forces to manufacture unrest in society for their own benefit. It is the common people who suffer, as a conversation between two college peons in Tamas points out sharply[6], “We poor people are such ignorant fools, we go breaking one another’s head. These wise and well-to-do people are so sensible. They are all here, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. See how cordially they are meeting one another.

    In one part of the novel, where the British officer, Richard, is explaining the grave situation of the village to his wife, Liza, their conversation[7] provides certain insights as to how it really was a matter of toying around with the masses and their rights:

    Richard: “They are fighting both against us and against one another.”

    Liza: “You are again joking, Richard. Aren’t you?”

    Richard: “In the name of religion they fight one another; in the name of freedom, they fight against us.”

    Liza: “Don’t try to be too clever, Richard. I also know a thing or two. In the name of freedom, they fight against you, but in the name of religion you make them fight one another.”

    There are numerous other pieces of literature, especially concerning atrocities of the Holocaust, such as The Book Thief and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, that depict the painful human rights violations suffered by Jews at the hands of the Nazis in 1940s Germany. The Holocaust is one of the worst examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide that the world has suffered from, where more than six million Jews were killed mercilessly in pogroms, massacres, concentration camps, gas chambers and extermination camps. At the center stage of this genocide was the Nazi ideology propagated by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, led by the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, which considered the Jews as an ethnically inferior race to the Aryans and reaffirmed the age-old views on antisemitism. There was absolutely no respect for Jews in Germany at all especially as their persecution was systematically legalised and expanded by the enactment of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, according to which Jews were stripped of their citizenship and made into second class citizens with lesser rights.

    Similarly, as Danticat’s Farming of Bones forces us to remember, the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was responsible for the massacre of more than thirty thousand Haitians living and working in the north-western region of the Dominican Republic in 1937. Trujillo was a staunch proponent of the Anti-Haitianism sentiment and believed in the genetic and cultural inferiority of Haitian people. Resultantly, he viewed the influx of Haitians into the Dominican Republic as a hindrance in the overall progress of the Dominicans and labelled them as being “frankly undesirable” since they were not well nourished, worse dressed and weak. On his orders, the Dominican troops were ordered to kill all Haitians living in the border regions near the Dajabon River and out of those who managed to survive the massacre, most perished in their attempts to cross the river into Haiti. This demonstrates the negligible value attached by Trujillo to lives of the Haitians and how easy he found it to toy around with their human rights.

    Therefore, the study of these literary works points to the conclusion that atrocities like genocides, massacres and riots are not a simple factor of crises between warring identities, rather, these events are necessarily subjected to prior social, political and economic context. The author has also found that, more often than not, these genocides, massacres and riots are the result of meticulous orchestration at the hands of the marionettist handling, or toying with, the strings. It is essential that literature recounting the stories of horror witnessed by the victims and survivors of these atrocities is spread so that the tales can be remembered and empathy can be generated towards them. This category of literature also serves as a form of protest against the toying of human rights and seeks to remind people of the value of human lives and its rights, of whatever shape and size they may be.

    Views are personal.

    1. Pramod K. Nayar, Human Rights and Literature: Writing Rights, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan, pg. xi.

    2. Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan, Penguin Books, 1956, pg. 133.

    3. Ibid, pp. 154-162.

    4. Supra note 6, pg. 119.

    5. Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones, Soho Press, 1998, pg. 166.

    6. Bhisham Sahni, Tamas, Penguin Books India, 1974, pg. 343.

    7. Ibid, pg. 50.

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