On January 24th, 40 people belonging to a Taliban-like political organization — Sri Ram Sena — barged into a pub in Mangalore, India, intent on committing violence.
As near as I’ve been able to put together from incomplete and sometimes conflicting reports, the intruders attacked several people — mostly young women, and mostly college students — who were until then peacefully enjoying the pub. The 40 roughed up the young people, who they outnumbered, and perhaps in some instances went so far as to molest some of the girls. Two of the young women were hospitalized.
The rationalization given by the intruders for ganging up like cowards to assault the young people was they felt they had to beat up the kids to preserve “traditional Indian norms“. Specifically, they seemed to object to the young women drinking and dancing in public, to their manner of dress, and to their fraternization with the young men.
Who is responsible for the outrageous behavior of the 40 goons? It seems to me that, besides the 40 goons themselves, there are at least three other groups that helped to bring about this event. First, the leaders of the political organization to which the goons belong, the Sri Ram Sena, or “Army of Ram”. Second, to at least some extent, those members of the media that had advanced notice of the attacks but apparently failed to make an effort to prevent them. And last, some public servants and officials — most likely including the police — whose past and present tolerance of this kind of political violence must surely encourage it.
Yet, I am not so much concerned here with fixing blame for the event as I am concerned with the psychology of the militants involved in it. This morning, The New York Times is running an article on the attack that represents it as a clash between the cultures of Old and New India, between the traditional and the modern. That’s an interesting thesis, and it’s probably one valid way in which to see the event. But it still doesn’t get at the psychology of the militants.
On the other hand, I believe Robert Altemeyer does a pretty good job of getting at the psychology of the militants. Altemeyer has spent 40 years studying the sorts of people who it seems largely comprise the backbone of such political organizations as the Taliban of Afghanistan, the former Nazis of Germany, the Communists of the old U.S.S.R., and so forth. He calls these people “authoritarians” and he identifies two psychologically distinct kinds of authoritarians: followers and leaders. A few years ago, Altemeyer published a free online book, The Authoritarians (.pdf)*. Although the book is specifically targeted to an American audience, it goes quite far in my opinion to explain the behavior of the militants in India’s Sri Ram Sena. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in why the militants behaved as they did, and in the best ways to combat them, to read Altemeyer’s book.
As I see it, the problem underlying the attack on the young people in Mangalore is authoritarianism. If Altemeyer and hundreds of other scientists are right, then Authoritarianism is rooted deep in human psychology and, as such, is not confined to any one society or culture, but is instead something that can and does crop up anywhere. And whenever it crops up in a democracy, such as India, it poses a threat of varying degrees to the democracy itself. It should therefore concern all of us who are interested in promoting democracy to study it’s arch-enemy, authoritarianism.