Debating India


Insights into the riot system

Iqbal A. Ansari

Friday 2 July 2004, by ANSARI*Iqbal A.

Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India by Paul R. Brass; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003; pages 476, Rs.495.

THE book is an extensive study devoted exclusively to post-Independence Hindu-Muslim riots in Aligarh. It is the result of painstaking research and extensive field work spread over four decades, during which the author visited Aligarh a number of times. Though the book deals with only one riot-prone town, it succeeds in providing an appropriate historical and contemporary perspective, which makes disparate elements of collective Hindu-Muslim violence get coherently organised and patterned.

As the title of the book suggests, Paul Brass does not regard acts of collective Hindu-Muslim violence mainly as spontaneous riots `caused’ by social, demographic, economic and political specificities of the time-space situation, but as "dramatic productions in which what is spontaneous can occur only because the scene has been prepared with numerous `rehearsals’ by various players with defined roles and division of labour."

In view of this, instead of raising the misdirected question "what causes riots?" Paul Brass focuses on "who - individuals, organisations or groups - produce riots, how and when do they produce them, and how is our attention diverted from questions that could be answered to questions that cannot?" He admits that a multiplicity of factors may precipitate riots and "a variety of factors and forces come into play, when the opportunity for producing riots occurs", but claims that large-scale Hindu-Muslim riots are primarily organised political productions.

For example, studies on the social demographic composition of the karsevaks in Ayodhya and other rioters at various places with the focus on their employment status and education and the folklore responsible for the negative stereotype of Muslims in their minds will be relevant and useful for identifying factors that facilitated the kind of acts that happened not only in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, but of all large-scale communal violence since the Jabalpur riots of 1961. But such sociological and economic models are simply not adequate and powerful enough to explain the `causes’ of the kind of violence that religious minorities have been subjected to in post-1947 India. This fact is brought out conspicuously by the massacre of Sikhs in 1984. There could be no two religious communities in the world that are more integrated than Hindus and Sikhs in India. Why then were Sikhs butchered? The only `cause’ of the massacre was the attempt of Hindu nationalists (mainly `secular’) to teach the Sikh community a political lesson - that it must submit to the political will of the majority, and they succeeded in their mission because of the blatantly partisan and communal role of the law-enforcement machinery, which functions as a subordinate body organised to provide the maximum political satisfaction to the "rulers". Rioters indulged in acts of killing, arson and loot, with the certainty that they would not be punished.

Paul Brass’s main concern is to understand the institutionalised riot system in India in order to be able to answer the question, "Why do riots persist?" But it needs to be borne in mind that understanding Hindu-Muslim violence requires relating it to a specific historical context not applicable to other inter-group violence in India. The reasons for the persistence of such violence are sought not in terms of a single factor - demographic, social, economic or political - but in terms of the `functional utility of riots’; identifying all its beneficiaries, including the secular political class and the leaders of the victim community; and the role of the state.

In the face of the persistence of riots in India as an endemic widespread and routine aspect of politics, Paul Brass views with concern the attempts at treating them as occasional, exceptional acts, committed by the dregs of society drawn from the slums, as they induce self-deception among the political and intellectual elites in India, which reassures them "that they still live in a basically peaceful land, in the world’s largest democracy where such aberrations are bound to occur in the process of India’s advance from backwardness to modernity".

Paul Brass’ historical and contemporary perspective enabled him to offer a valid explanation for the demolition of the Babri Masjid during the course of his lecture in the United States on the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence in 1997. He expressed his insightful opinion that the act of demolition was manifestation of the frustration of Hindu nationalists - secular as well as militant revivalist - over not achieving a great power status that they considered their due, and for the denial of which they held Muslims (Pakistani and Indian) responsible.

I agree with Paul Brass that "riots are key defining factors in the history of struggle for dominance of one community over another". It is the communally distorted reading of history, the exclusivist Hindu ideology of nationhood defined by V.D. Savarkar and the association of the sin of `vivesection’ of the sacred body of Bharat Mata with Muslims, that have given rise to the institutionalised riot system, which is used by the Sangh Parivar’s more militant sections in pursuit of their agenda of hate and revenge against Muslims.

Paul Brass’ answer to the question `why riots persist’ is comprehensive, though it focusses more on the political uses of communal violence. In my own work on communal violence I have laid greater emphasis on the partisan role of the state’s law-enforcement system and the failure of the justice delivery system, which have given rise to a pervasive climate of impunity and recurring violence.

The reason for my emphasis on the law-enforcement system lies in its relative neglect by the peace and human rights movements in the country. It also owes to my understanding that while inter-community relations need to be improved through education and conciliation, it is only the rule of law that can protect the life and liberty of weak and vulnerable groups, which are under serious threat from organised groups. Post-Ayodhya, human rights groups have been raising the issue of police reform to make the police professionally independent and accountable to law, thus ending their subservience to the political executive, as recommended by the National Police Commission (NPC) Reports II and VI (1978, 1981).

The recommendations in my Report on Communal Riots: Prevention and Control deal with the required legal and administrative measures for impartial, effective and humane law-enforcement, for the prevention and control of riots. Reference has been made by Paul Brass to this Report, written for the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) in 1999.

Our disappointment, even frustration, over the lack of any progress in implementing these reform measures, suggested from the 1961 National Integration Committee to NPC’s Reports 1978-81, the Home Ministry’s Guidelines for Communal Harmony, 1997, and the National Human Rights Commision’s (NHRC) comprehensive endorsement (1994-2002), gets satisfactorily explained by Brass’ observation that "contestation for control over civil and police administration. . . is at the heart of a broader struggle for power in this huge state... " He rightly explains that "politicians do not talk about professionalisation of the police because control of the police is at the centre of political conflict in a deeply and increasingly bitterly divided society. The proverbial spoils of office in India include not only control over the distribution of economic resources but control over the distribution of protection and safety."

Given this vicious situation, some groups have approached the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the government to implement measures for police reform. But the judiciary’s own record in dispensing justice in riot-related cases, including Ayodhya, has been dismal. That the justice system can be allowed to subvert justice and enjoy the approval of the High Court has, for the first time, been exposed by the apex court in the Best Bakery case.

Are there any signs that matters have started improving? Irrespective of the genuineness or otherwise of political moves towards peace in the subcontinent (within and across the borders) no durable institutional basis of peace can be secured in India if the intellectual class continues harping on the uniqueness of the Gujarat pogrom, without seeking parallels, as Paul Brass does, between Aligarh and Gujarat, by observing that "all the elements of riot production outlined herein are echoed in Gujarat". He does characterise Gujarat 2002 as a pogrom because of certain features of the killings and the destruction of property, but he rightly points out that "most such features have been noted on a smaller scale in the Aligarh and other riots" including "the destruction of mosques and shrines", say, for example, in the 1969 Ahmedabad riots.

As noted earlier, it is not that all theories - demographic, economic and social - get discredited by addressing the issues raised by Paul Brass. They have their situational validity while dealing with specificities, but the advice that he offers while concluding his Post-Script: Aligarh and Gujarat 2002 needs to be heeded:

"What is truly important for India’s present and future in all these respects (i.e. territorial integrity, societal peace, democratic functioning, and even its status in a world of nation-states), is escape from the self-perpetuating traps of blame displacement and the complementary traps of maximising and minimising the significance of horrific violence. In short, it is necessary to fix responsibility and penetrate the clouds of deception, rhetoric, mystification, obscurity, and indeterminacy to uncover what can be uncovered, knowing full well that the whole truth can never be known, but that the evident actions and inaction of known persons, groups, organisations, political leaders, media, academics seeking causes, and patriots seeking comfort can be uncovered, exposed, and brought to book."

Are institutions that can help bring the guilty to book in place in India even where there is the political will to get justice done? It is the recent combined contribution of the NHRC and the Supreme Court to expose the reality of the inadequacy of the Indian criminal justice system in dealing with cases related to communal violence, that gives one some hope. I would like Paul Brass to include this vital aspect of the Indian reality in his future studies on riots, say on Meerut, where he will find that the trial of indicted members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), who shot more than 40 Muslims dead in Hashimpura on May 22-23, 1987, is yet to start and that the victims of this violence have received only Rs.40,000 as compensation.

It needs to be noted that some of these issues have been addressed in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance in Durban in 2001. It requires reform in not only law enforcement but in law and in making the composition of the institutions of governance (including the judiciary), socially diverse. It is a pity that even the mainstream human rights movement in the country is not showing any signs of undertaking a sustained campaign for secularising and pluralising the police and justice delivery systems. Paul Brass does bring the issue under discussion, and he rightly points out the constraints of the political command-control system.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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