I have never played Grand Theft Auto V, currently the world's most popular video game, and quite possibly never will. It apparently offers an open-world environment for the protagonist to roam freely through a criminal underworld and carry out random acts of gratuitous violence. I don't hold any particularly well-formed opinions about it, other than being aware of the controversy over its level of violence, its depiction of torture, and its underlying misogyny, so I'll leave it to others to debate its ethics.
I was, however, extremely disappointed to see it making a remarkably ill-judged appearance in a speech delivered by His Excellency Sir James Bevan, British High Commissioner to India, during his recent visit with a trade delegation to the eastern state of Odisha (Orissa). Promoting the UK's "Britain is GREAT" marketing campaign, he eulogised about all that makes Britain GREAT, and of course he has plenty to draw upon. Fine, that's what a High Commissioner does. And one of our GREAT exports, he enthused, is the world's best-selling video game, which he confessed to enjoying when in need of "violent therapy".
Yes, violent therapy. I am sure that was just a throwaway line, signifying not very much in a speech which would otherwise be quickly forgotten. But the High Commissioner's painfully poor choice of witticism still rings in my ears, because the state of Odisha has known far too much ugly violence, its many marginalised people have suffered too much conflict and too many injustices, for that to be anything like amusing.
Odisha has been racked by all kinds of violence during recent years. Not the least of it was the mass targeted violence against the Dalit and Adivasi Christian community centred on Kandhamal district in 2008, for which there has been so little justice and such unsatisfactory restitution five years on, and whose effects reverberate into the present.
Much of that violence was so wanton, stranger murdering stranger just because of the religious label they bore. I have written before about the women widowed in Kandhamal, whose lives were rent apart by the tragedies they suffered. One of them had not even been able to tell her daughter that her father was dead. He was killed after a mob taunted him, telling him to tear, burn, and urinate on his Bible. When he would not, they buried him alive in a muddy river bank, where he died. It is not a huge leap to imagine the perpetrators in those heady days of lawless violence enjoying a similar thrill in their random killings to the Grand Theft Auto V protagonist in dystopian San Andreas.
Then there was the casual burning of effigies last year when one of the stalwart human rights activists in Odisha was given a national award for his superb work on behalf of the victims. He chooses not to live in fear, but he could easily have chosen otherwise. And there continues to be an ever-growing squeeze on other human rights defenders who speak up for marginalised people in that state.
Equally galling about the High Commissioner's casual throwaway comment is the fact that the British High Commission has a good record of raising these issues, which could now have been undermined. I have often had cause to applaud the real commitment and hard work carried out by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promote human rights and good governance. British diplomats were part of an EU delegation to Odisha after the 2008 violence, which had real value in showing the victims they were not forgotten by the outside world, that their plight mattered. British Parliamentarians have continued to raise this situation regularly since that time. Yet now, Odisha is invited to laugh about the fun that casual escapist violence offers.
Notwithstanding many dreadful injustices throughout history for which Britain has been directly responsible, not least in India, part of what would show Britain to be GREAT in the world today would be a commitment to upholding the values we profess, raising human rights concerns, and connecting with marginalised and disenfranchised people.
And perhaps even more importantly, being consistent about it.