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Thoughts on Ethics…

by on July 23, 2013

“Someone once said that the greatest inequality is the equal treatment of unequals. If you work with soldiers and militants alongside civilians”, she said, “aren’t you exacerbating the inequality in the situation?”

As I write this post I am in Kashmir, conducting a community-based theatre workshop with a (civilian) theatre company in the capital. In this work, in the discussions that happen in my rehearsal space every day – discussions that implicate those who wield gestures of violence – I realize more and more that my quest to use theatre with men and women who wield violence is (like my colleague commented above) bounded within an ethical quagmire. What does the gesture of ‘offering’ art mean, if that offering is made to those who are widely seen as ‘perpetrators’? Apart from the logistical considerations of ensuring the safety of those I work with (and myself), how does one negotiate questions of ethics when working with those who use arms?

I am reminded of Gopal Guru who, when discussing non-Dalit writers addressing Dalit issues in India, brought up the idea of a ‘moral right to theorise’; that it is only those who have lived an experience themselves that have the right to theorize about it. Of course there are many ways in which this understanding might be countered, as Sundar Sarukkai does eloquently by juxtaposing Habermas’ ideas of the ‘distribution of guilt’ with Guru’s ideas; that it is precisely those who have NOT lived the experience who have a right/responsibility to distribute the guilt of that event, by addressing a larger culpability in any situation of injustice.

I frequently oscillate between these two positions: that as someone who has NOT lived the experience of war (in this case, the Kashmiri conflicts), it is perhaps my responsibility as an artist to acknowledge the value of the many stories that form part of the larger Kashmir narrative. Yes, the holders of those stories might some be ‘more equal’ than others, but is it not through the gestures of theatre/art then that the ‘equality’ in the realm of the personal might be disentangled from the ‘inequality’ in public spheres? But then again, as someone who has NOT lived the experience of war – either as a (direct) victim or perpetrator – what is my right to tell these stories?

The question I have come to  then is how I might  find a grey area between these two attitudes toward ethics and lived experience, a grey area from which it is my culpability as a witness (to Kashmir from mainland India) that is the starting point. Therefore, it is my lived experience as someone who is trying to understand the dynamics of the conflicts at hand, as someone who is indirectly implicated in the conflict – as we all are in the many local and global conflicts that occur around us – that is the lived experience that I seek to theorise. Perhaps, then, the question is not about what theatre can do for soldiers and militants, seeking then to theorize something about the experiences of these men and women. Perhaps the question is this: by using theatre with wielders of violence, what is it that I can theorize about my own lived experience as a witness and indirect victim/perpetrator to the conflicts in Kashmir?

Works Cited

Sarukkai, S., 2007. Dalit Experience and Theory. Economic and Poltical Weekly, pp. 4043-4048.

Sarukkai, S., 2007. The ‘Other’ in Anthropology and Philosophy. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 1406-1409.

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