Debating India


Riots: Who’s to blame?

Paromita Mukhopadhyay

Wednesday 4 February 2004, by MUKHOPADHYAY*Paromita

Article paru dans le Hindustan Times, ?dition du 4 f?vrier 2004.

It’s not what causes violence, but who causes riots.

Paul Brass makes the astonishing claim that collective violence is an integral part of Indian political practice. This includes communal conflict, civil wars with insurrectionary groups, intercaste riots, mafia violence, criminality, inter-gang killings etc.

Tackling the case of Hindu-Muslim violence, Brass seeks to demonstrate the importance of human agency via individuals, organisations and groups in fomenting communal violence rather than abstract social causes like urbanisation, poverty, a weak state etc that tend to absolve those who consciously orchestrate violence. Importantly, Brass argues that communal violence is anything but spontaneous. Just the kind of theory that Narendra Modi likes to popularise since it focuses attention, for example, on Godhra that is said to have unleashed unplanned Hindu anger while glossing over the pernicious role of right-wing militias, state complicity in genocide and the clearly asymmetric nature of the so-called reaction.

Through an exhaustive analysis of religious violence in Aligarh through the decades, Brass discerns the existence of what he calls “institutionalized riot systems” which produce collective violence in a fashion similar to the production of a theatrical play which involves preparation, enactment and interpretation. Riots feature multiple actors, as in a drama, ranging from the informant who carries messages to political leaders of the occurrence of incidents, the propagandists who pass on loaded stories to vernacular journalists, the rumor mongers who transmit incite-able tales in localities and the recruiters, who collect crowds to kill, loot and burn when the time is right. Through extended analysis of interviews with such actors Brass’s book provides a powerful encounter with the morbid individual and collective aspirations that continually undermine India’s integrity.

In this negative project, he implicates the political class for integrating communal violence into political strategy as part of its search for electoral dominance, as the Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat 2002 indicate. Brass presents evidence to show that there is a causal link between riots, mass mobilization and electoral competition. Riots precede elections as Hyderabad demonstrated recently, intensify communal solidarity and hence lead to communal mobilization which help political parties win elections. Following riots (and elections), the process of blame displacement in which politicians, government and the media distort facts eventually leads to the miscarriage of justice that further weakens social trust and cyclically leads to violence when political opportunity beckons.

By focusing the question on who causes riots rather what causes violence, Brass’s analysis highlights the importance (and failure thus far) of the state in impartially mediating between warring groups and also its role in bridging the divided historical consciousness of communities on which politicians and petty businessmen thrive.

Collective violence features comparable actors who have similar objectives and thus Brass’s template of “institutionalized riot systems” in Aligarh can be plausibly applied elsewhere when analysing social violence in India. The interpretive framework of this excellent book is compelling enough to transcend the curious lack of emphasis on the workings of Muslim riot systems in Aligarh. Which is why this book should have a longer influence than Brass’s previous book, Politics of India Since Independence.

See online :


The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India

Paul R Brass


Price: Rs 495

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