ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ahimsa at Odds

Individual Ethics, Structural Violence and India

Propagating ahimsa, while permitting structural violence, suggests ethical blindness for individuals and an absence of an enlightened vision for society. India needs to move from a narrow concept of ahimsa to a broader vision, which renounces structural violence.

Reconciling ahimsa with structural violence pervasive in India exposes the contradictions of the human condition and mandates introspection for individuals and society.


Ahimsa refers to non-violent approaches to life, which do not cause injury or harm to others. The philosophy argues that violence has karmic consequences and applies the concept of non-violence to all living beings. The concept evolved over time and was initially developed to abjure animal sacrifice. Gradually, ahimsa in individual lives extended to vegetarian food habits among the upper castes. Stricter dietary restrictions include renouncing root vegetables and following vegan diets, as eating tubers and dairy products are perceived as violence against plants and animals, respectively.

Ahimsa was championed by Jain and Buddhist philosophy and religion. Over time, the idea of non-violence extended to the notion of adrohi, a cardinal virtue necessary for an ethical life, which implies not causing injury through thoughts, words and actions.

While ahimsa was considered the highest ideal, ancient Indian scriptures also recognised exceptions to the rule. Classical texts discuss concepts of lawful violence for self-defense, proportionate punishment and theories for a just war.

Gandhi championed the concept of ahimsa and his model of non-violent satyagraha helped India gain independence from British rule. His example spread its message to the world.

Structural Violence

On the other hand, structural violence refers to the way social structures cause harm or disadvantage to individuals. It describes social arrangements that are embedded in political and economic organisations, which cause systematic harm to people. While behavioral violence can be pinned on individuals, structural violence is due to historical and cultural forces, which constrain people.

Structural violence is often distal in the causation chain and works through many intermediary mechanisms, which are blamed for unfortunate consequences, making it difficult to assign causality for harm caused to vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, it highlights different social and institutional failings that have dire consequences in people’s lives. Some examples of structural violence are briefly highlighted.

Gender Injustice

Patriarchy, common in most parts of the country, upholds the institution of male privilege and mandates female subordination. Its prejudice and bigotry are translated into a compulsive preference for boys and discrimination against the girl child. It has spawned practices such as female feticide, infanticide, dowry, bride burning and sati. It has led to the neglect of nutrition, health care, education, and employment for girls. Women’s work is socially devalued and they often have limited autonomy in decision-making.

Caste Conundrum

The caste system, with its societal stratification and social restrictions, continues to have a major impact in India. The system generally identified with Hinduism is also prevalent among Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

Reduced access to maternal and child health care is evident with reduced levels of antenatal care, institutional deliveries and complete vaccination coverage among the lower castes. Stunting, wasting, under-nutrition and anemia in children and anemia in adults are higher among subordinate castes. Neonatal, postnatal, infant, and under-five statistics clearly show a higher mortality among scheduled castes and tribes.

Dalits continue to face social discrimination and exclusion and are targets of communal violence. Assault, rape and murder of Dalits by the upper castes are common and yet, frequently these crimes are not investigated and punished by the authorities, despite laws and protection provided by the Indian state.

Poverty and Capitalism

India’s economic development masks inequity in the country and the human cost of progress. The country ranks low on the Human Development Index, while its Gini  Coefficient suggests marked inequality. For millions of Indians, hunger is routine, malnutrition rife, employment insecure, social security non-existent, health care expensive, and livelihoods are under threat.

The vibrant economy, “the shining India,” is restricted to the upper classes, while majority in the country eke out a meagre existence on its margins. Millions of poor and tribal people have been moved from their ancestral lands to make way for development projects. These schemes, meant to lead the country to economic progress, seem to be mainly for urban and rich Indians. The promise of nirvana, via the trickle-down economics of capitalism, is surely a cruel trick on the most vulnerable and marginalised of people.

Apologists of the capitalist economic system betray an ideological bias with assumptions that an unregulated market is fair and competent; that the exercise of private greed will be in the larger public interest. Even a cursory examination of assets and disparities across peoples suggests that those who succeed have inherited advantages and favourable playing fields, compared to those who do not. The focus on apparent merit does not take into account the different histories, the varied physical environment, the divergent contexts and the grossly dissimilar opportunities available.

Structural Violence Normalised

Recent tendencies, which equate imposition of the majoritarian agenda as democratic, assert that the majority is entitled to primacy in society, even at the expense of fundamental rights of other members of the population. Such “tyranny of the majority” often results in a vitiated environment, where systemic harms are common. Intolerance of diversity and chauvinism of various kinds—linguistic, ethnic, class, caste and religious—are easily escalated to violence, both structural and behavioral.

Structural violence, normalised in India, encourages majoritarian views to flourish and is presented as workings of a successful democracy. The majoritarian agenda is reinforced with bans on free speech, books, movies and food. Ghettoisation of certain sections of the population and stigmatising of others is accepted as norm. These campaigns are often enforced by threats of physical violence. Structural violence is intertwined with behavioral violence, resulting in symbiotic relationships, which augment each other.

The killing of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi argues that structural violence encourages fundamentalist groups, while those who vitiate the atmosphere disclaim all responsibility. Supporting vegetarianism, a contested moral absolute, and imposing bans on meat on a culturally diverse people while facilitating structural violence, which actually kills humans, reduces life span, and destroys livelihoods suggests clear inconsistency in practice.

Ethical Blindness

There is no universal consensus on concepts of pacifism. The traditional ahimsa-violence debate tends to treat these as opposites; behavioral violence in the individual context is divorced from structural violence in community settings. With such “motivated blindness” and an emphasis on parochial goals, the ethical implications of important decisions fade away. Ethical fading results in condoning behavior that one would condemn if one were consciously aware of it. It results in ethical lapses in our social world, which are pervasive and intractable. It is the everyday casual and hurtful prejudice—sexist innuendo, caste-based language, religious stereotyping, ethnic profiling, class-linked insinuations and small institutional inequities, that actually undergird all violence. Structural violence, like all social phenomena, requires careful elucidation. It requires an understanding of the particulars of context to make us comprehend our failures in relation to abstractions like ahimsa.


The major barrier to mainstreaming social justice is structural violence based on prevalent sociocultural frameworks. These need to be acknowledged as causal, interrogated and laid bare. Pacifist interpretations of ahimsa should be viewed not only in the individual context but also examined in larger community settings. India needs to move from a narrow concept of ahimsa to a broader vision, which renounces structural violence. While practicing ahimsa in individual lives is an ideal, disregarding the need to reduce structural violence in society is a major ethical failing. Systemic injustice requires much more than a change of heart; it requires changes in social structures. 

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