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Organised riots & structured violence in India

Wednesday 23 August 2006, by BRASS*Paul R.

MY FIRST involvement with the subject of collective violence was with the Aligarh riots of 1961 that occurred on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, an irony that I was not the only person to notice at the time. At that time, I was engaged in my Ph.D. research on the Congress party in five districts in Uttar Pradesh. I had chosen Aligarh as one of the five sites in order to determine how the Congress functioned in a context where Hindu-Muslim relations had been embittered as a consequence of the presence of the Aligarh Muslim University in the city. I arrived in Aligarh a couple of months after the termination of those riots and wrote about their disastrous consequences for the Congress organisation in the district in my first book, Factional Politics in an Indian State.

In subsequent research visits to India over the next two decades, the subject of violence also featured, but again only peripherally in my work on other issues, especially concerning language and politics. Nevertheless, I was struck by the ways in which violence had come to be used in Indian politics. It had become not something aberrant, but rather routine, which I noted in my brief discussion (in my second book, Language, Religion, and Politics in North India) of the Ranchi riots of August 1967 that took off from the decision of the non-Congress coalition government in Bihar to declare Urdu as the second official language of the State.

So, my research on violence in my first two decades of field work was incidental to my main interests. In 1982-83, however, when I undertook a restudy of the same five districts two decades after my initial research in India, it had become apparent that any study of politics in Uttar Pradesh had to include the issue of violence centrally. It was also apparent to me then that violence was not only an issue in Hindu-Muslim relations, but was increasingly widespread in Indian politics. Consequently, wherever I went in U.P. in those years, I asked persons in authority and in politics whether or not there had been any serious incidents of violence recently. Everywhere I went, I was indeed informed of such incidents and proceeded to the sites where they had occurred in each district to investigate their origins, the reasons for their occurrence, the consequences for the participants, and the ways in which they were reported in the press and used by politicians for their own ends.

My research at that time did not focus explicitly on what are called "Hindu-Muslim riots," but on various forms of violence, including intercaste, intervillage fracases, and police-public confrontations. In the meantime, however, as the militant Hindu movement began to gather force, so did the intensity and scale of collective violence involving Hindus, Muslims, and the police. So also did the media attention to these forms of violence.

It was during my field work in Aligarh and Meerut districts in 1982-83 that I first came to the conclusion that there was a great deal wrong with the kind of attention given to what are called Hindu-Muslim riots and to the interpretations given to violence designated as such. I came away from those field trips with the thought that the rioting that I was learning about was neither spontaneous, nor was it primarily conflict between Hindu and Muslim crowds, though there was still some of that.

On the contrary, I said to myself, and to a former district magistrate in Aligarh, that there existed in these towns what I called "institutionalised riot systems." The ex-DM, who knew very well how riots were organised, nevertheless reacted with an uncomprehending look. I was somewhat discouraged by his reaction, but ultimately found in my data from interviews, official and non-official reports - but not from the media - that the existence of such systems was to my mind incontrovertible. Moreover, it was much more highly developed and elaborately organised within the network of militant Hindu organisations radiating out from the RSS than from any comparable network of Muslim organisations, at least in northern India.

Moreover, it was also now clear enough to me that what have been called Hindu-Muslim riots in India of the past several decades are misnamed, that they could not have been carried out with such force in so many places, in many cases for extended periods of time, and repeatedly, without the complicity of the police and the failure of the political parties in control of government and the administrative and police officers in the districts to prevent riots or at least to contain them once they had begun. In short, what are called Hindu-Muslim riots in India are, in fact, more like pogroms, and have recently, in Gujarat and elsewhere, taken the form of genocidal massacres and local ethnic cleansing as well.

These discoveries led me in turn to adopt a critical stance concerning the social science literature on this subject which, it seemed to me, had got caught up in misguided efforts to categorise and classify the various forms of collective violence and to probe the mentalities of rioters and crowds without displaying much knowledge of how riots actually happen. Pseudo-science substituted for ethnographic research. The search for universal laws of behaviour ignored the dynamic processes by which riotous behaviour was produced. The urge to find "causes" for riots turned into a chimerical search for the sources of violence in crowd psychology, spontaneous popular anger over grievances against other groups spread by rumours, ancient hatreds, decline of civic engagement, and on and on, all without benefit of actual knowledge of anything but the barest sequencing of events, without penetrating into the circles where specific persons and groups actually work out plans of action, strategies and tactics, recruit rioters, and select targets to attack. Nor was virtually any attention paid to the crucial roles played by the media and politicians in framing the discourse concerning riots in such a way as to displace blame away from the actual perpetrators, the authorities, the police, and themselves on to others.

In 1999, I was invited to present a paper on the 1947 partition violence in India for a conference on forced migrations and collective violence in the twentieth century. The organisers of the conference, like most people, including regrettably most scholars who have not actually done research on the subject, assumed that the partition violence was yet another example of "Hindu-Muslim violence," an expression of the mass anger and fears of millions of people who fled their homes and villages for safety across the new border between India and Pakistan.

Serious scholarship

At this time, the new wave of serious scholarship on the Partition had just begun. I was able to draw upon this literature as well as the massive published documents on the subject, and a few of my own earlier meetings in the 1960s with politicians who had been deeply implicated in the violence. I realised now, as did several others in the 1990s, that even such a stupendous disaster as the partition of India had been massively distorted in historical writing on the subject and in public consciousness, that it had not been at all recognised, except by a tiny minority of scholars, for what it actually was, namely, a twentieth century form of genocide and ethnic cleansing, planned and organised, but made to appear wholly or mostly spontaneous or blamed upon various easy targets such as Lord Mountbatten or the British policy of "divide and rule." So, the genocide of partition is yet another example, the most extreme form, of course, of institutionalised violence, lying at the far end of a continuum of forms of violence that include riots, pogroms, and massacres.

Those who are familiar with my previous work know that I do not take a detached stance in my writing on the subject of collective violence. I strive for social science objectivity, but I do not hide my passion or anger. In the long, previously unpublished essay on "The Politics of Curfew" in my recent book Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India, I have provided extensive, detailed accounts from my own interviews over many years, as well as from other sources, concerning the misuse of curfew in India as a device for the victimisation of the Muslim population during riots.

In preparing that essay, I searched for comparative literature on the subject and found none, but I did find evidence that misuse of curfew restrictions to victimise particular ethnic or subject groups is hardly confined to India. I have, therefore, argued that this is an issue that needs to be taken up by the human rights community and international organisations. I have also proposed a set of policies that might be considered by such groups and by governments in India.

One must take up the issue of what secularism means in India in relation to collective and state violence involving Hindu-Muslim relations. I argue in my book, as I have elsewhere, that secular values are absolutely essential for the maintenance of a just and peaceful social order in India. I believe, moreover, that the whole movement against secular values in India and the West is a grave mistake in which, regrettably, many valued colleagues and serious academic writers in India and the West are involved.

See online : The Hindu


(Excerpted from Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India by Paul R. Brass - to be published in September by Three Essays Collective.)

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