Debating India


Why do riots occur?


Friday 19 September 1997, by NOORANI*A.G.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 14, n?18, Sept. 6-19, 1997.

Few communal riots are accidental. Most are planned or are preceded by communal propaganda. The Indian state’s record on riot prevention has been no better than its record on riot control.

THEORIES about the occurrence of riots abound even as their frequency increases. It is instructive to consider some of them, brought together in a volume edited by the scholar Paul R. Brass. His magisterial introduction sets the tone. He points out, insightfully, that, in their search for causes, the contesting interpretations of a riot among competing groups, academics, journalists and politicians themselves can reveal attitudes which underlie the violence itself.

His thesis bears quotation in extenso: "If it is accepted that Russians attack Jews because Jews exploit them and because Jews set themselves apart, then measures need to be taken to prevent ’Jewish exploitation’ and to either promote their assimilation or separate them completely from contact with Russians by keeping them in the Pale of Settlement. Conversely, if the black ghetto violence is interpreted as justified rage against discrimination in white society, then policies and resources must be devoted to eliminating discrimination. If a riot is seen to arise out of justified mass resentment against a minority’s exploitation of the majority or out of its alleged disloyalty to or betrayal of the country as in the case of Muslims in India, then measures to curb the minority’s rights or demands and to put its members in their place will be the preferred response. Alternatively, if Hindu-Muslim riots are seen as a consequence of provocation of a harassed minority by militant Hindu nationalists, then measures to protect the minority and constrain militant Hindu groups are in order."

While "Russian intellectuals" tried to explain away the 1871 pogrom in terms of Jewish "exploitation" and "religious intolerance", thus providing the authorities a convenient excuse to blame Jews for their own misfortunes, white liberals saw the riots of the 1960s in the U.S. as a "legitimate response to discrimination, even as insurrections or rebellions against white domination and exploitation." On the other hand, black activists developed "a riot-ideology" which provided the justification for their revolt against the oppression of blacks in America. It was "the rage of the oppressed."

However, he adds that "the very process of interpretation contributes to the failure to prosecute the perpetrators of violence even when their identities are well known... known killers and looters and their patrons whose pictures may even have appeared in the newspapers or their acts filmed in videos go free."

A riot can also be staged to send across a political message to the adversary and to the state. Reading this volume, one is struck by the fact that extensive as the literature on riots in India is, it is not particularly rich in depth of analysis. Riots occur in waves, Brass records, and in the wake of a "psychological atmosphere". Yet, after the trauma of Partition, riots decreased in frequency. The graph began to rise only after the Jabalpur riots in 1961. Had the rise in the fortunes of the Jan Sangh and the RSS nothing to do with it?

While a riot is "a violent disturbance of the peace by an assembly or body of persons," a pogrom is "an organised massacre". We have had at least two pogroms since Independence. One was against the Sikhs in Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. The other was in Mumbai in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in December 1992 and January 1993.

The volume has able essays on the 1905 pogrom against Jews in Czarist Russia, the pogrom against them in Nazi Germany in 1938, and organised political violence at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in 1929 and 1990. For the Indian reader, interest will naturally centre on the three essays on riots in India.

The writings of Peter van der Veer, Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Amsterdam, on the Indian situation have deservedly won high praise. His essay is the piece-de-resistance of the volume. It is entitled "Riots and Rituals: The Construction of Violence and Public Space in Hindu Nationalism." He writes: "Riots in India I have witnessed or read about were more often than not well-planned and had well-defined targets and rules. In some cases you know exactly when and where to expect them to begin and end, as if they were rituals" (emphasis added, throughout). Both rituals and riots play significant roles in the construction of social identities.

Witness the traditional ritual provocations - slaughter of cows in public, music before mosques, and processions shouting provocative slogans while marching through the "adversary’s" localities. Few are accidental. Most are planned or are preceded by inflammatory communal propaganda. The Indian state’s record on riot prevention has been no better than its record on riot control.

Van der Veer’s studies on Ayodhya are well known. It bears recalling that "it was only through tax-free land grants that the ascetics could settle in Ayodhya and start to build temples. For example, Safdar Jang (r. 1739-54) gave land to Abhayaramdas, abbot of the Nirwadi Akhara, for building Hanumangarhi, which is now the most important temple in Ayodhya. The removal of the Nawabi administration first from Ayodhya to Faizabad and then to Lucknow is often interpreted as the liberation of a Hindu sacred place from Muslim oppression in Hindu historical writing. Clearly, the contrary is the case, since Ayodhya rose as a Hindu pilgrimage centre in direct relation with the expansion of the Nawabi realm and with direct support from the Nawabi court."

He draws attention to an interesting fact. The failure of Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra, early in 1992, was one of the factors that led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) "to focus, its attention again on the Ayodhya issue," leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. "Although BJP leader Lal Kishan Advani, who was present at this occasion, immediately tried to distance himself from the act of demolition, there can be little doubt that the entire event had been well planned in advance. At the same time there can be no doubt that the paramilitary forces, present at the site, could have prevented the demolition."

Gyaneshwar and Jayati Chaturvedi, both of St. John’s College, Agra, are the only Indian contributors with their essay on the riots in Agra in 1990 and their non-occurrence in 1992, in 1990 because the Hindutva forces were out to gain ascendency. By 1992 they had consolidated their position in the city and the State. Agra was not rocked by riots in December 1992.

Some of their comments are, to say the least, odd. The English language press is roundly attacked not only for "its serious inability to comprehend the meaning and power of the Hindutva resurgence but also its almost total alienation from popular sentiment in reporting the demolition of the ’disputed structure’. Even western mediapersons are often amazed at the hiatus between the ground reality and the reporting/ prognoses of the English language press." The solitary authority cited in support of the proposition is Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India.

Journals are censured for reporting derelictions of duty by the police, a "crime" of which Vander Veers is probably also guilty. "That bit of slick reporting, though true, did not take into account the dangerous portents inherent in the situation. Nor did it attempt to analyse the causes of that ennui. A mere indictment was enough for the conscience-keepers. The fact of the matter is that, be it the beat constable in a riot situation, the DM (District Magistrate) Faizabad or SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police) Faizabad, an increasing number of Hindu agents of the interventionist state are finding it more and more difficult to stifle what they see as their own conscience and render unquestioning obedience to the dictates of an increasingly alien state." Is that an explanation or an excuse or a defence?

The communal bias of Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary is admitted only to be qualified by citations of trivia in its defence. The former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole felt himself under no such obligation when criticising it in his memoirs Unfinished Innings. Rajiv Gandhi’s decisions on the Shah Bano case and the Shilanyas are mentioned, not so his cynical order to open the locks on the gates of the Masjid in February 1986, which revived the bitter dispute.

A few cameos explain their approach. Readers will have little difficulty in identifying the provenance of the idiom: Nehru took to Western values lock, stock, and barrel and used the entire power of his charismatic personality to legitimise the Western world-view, so much so that large sections of the Hindu community internalised the Nehruvian perception to the point where ’Hindu tradition’ became synonymous with obscurantism and communalism, if not worse...

"The Hindu and the Hindu community present the pathetic spectacle of a people living an apologetic life in its own land, unsure of its own identity, and uprooted from its traditions. According to the new militant Hindu discourse, the Congress denied them the right to interpret their history."

And what is one to make of the assertion that "Nationalist (sic.) Muslims in India have acknowledged the country as their place of birth and their only home." The writers clearly imply that the outlook is not shared by the rest of the community. (Muslims are divided into three categories: nationalist, communal and Marxist Muslims). "It was the Muslim leadership who, by their determined opposition to the BJP-VHP, had transformed an obscure mosque into a highly volatile issue."

To sum up: "This study seeks to suggest that the Nehruvian model of socialism, secularism, and democracy is on the brink of collapse due to its alien origins and superimposition on the mass folk culture of the land. Further, it suggests that, unless modified substantially in view of the dominant culture patterns, the Nehruvian values would soon risk total collapse in the face of an emerging, authentically indigenous Bharatiya culture symbolised by the force of Hindutva.. In the final analysis, this paper holds that political nationalism and Hindu cultural nationalism are compatible and that the latter deserves to be freed of the odious notions associated with it in the last 45 years of Congress domination." These are not conclusions from any cogent analysis on the basis of data. They are pure ipse dixit in a contribution that stands out like a sore thumb in a volume of erudite essays.

In total contrast is Virginia Van Dyke’s essay on the Delhi riots of 1984. They were not "ordered" by the State but were rather "organised for the government by forces which the government itself had created." Politicians had taken care to patronise lumpen forces. Her detailed and documented resume concludes: "The speed with which these riots were organised following the assassination leads to two inescapable conclusions: they were prearranged and preplanned and an institutional riot structure was already in place, a pre-existing ’technology of terror’." Was the situation in Mumbai in December 1992 basically different? More to the point, has the infrastructure for group violence been dismantled, whether in Mumbai or elsewhere?


Riots and Pogroms, Edited by Paul R. Brass; Macmillan Press, ?15.99, Pages 262.

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