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American Political Science Review

Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence.


Thursday 5 February 2004, by GANGULY*Sumit

American Political Science Review, Sept, 1998.

Paul Brass, one of this country’s leading political scientists working on India, has written a fascinating, frustrating, and occasionally polemical book on the politics of collective violence in northern India.

Sumit Ganguly, Hunter College of the City University of New York.

This work is fascinating in its detailed discussion of a number of remote incidents. In his descriptions and analyses of these events, Brass displays his substantial knowledge of the politics of caste and community in some of India’s most violence-prone regions. Simultaneously, however, the book is quite frustrating, for reasons related to its analytical perspective.

All of Brass’s previously published work was within the canons of empirical social science. In this book, however, Brass adopts a postmodernist perspective in his attempts to explain varieties of collective violence in India. For any social scientist trained in the tradition of empirical social science, this work poses problems. Brass provides a number of distinct accounts of a single event. In each account he attempts to show how the particular vantage point of an observer leads to the description and etiology of the eruption of collective violence. It is beyond the scope of a brief review to summarize the rich and thick description that Brass provides of instances of ethnoreligious collective violence. Instead, one such episode, dealing with a putative mass rape at a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, shows how the national government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to exploit an allegation of police repression against poor and low-caste villagers to undermine and dismiss the elected U.P. government. Brass also shows that sections of the Indian English-language press were complicit in uncritically accepting the preferred account of the national government in New Delhi. Consequently, these "privileged" accounts, to use a favored postmodernist term, obfuscated other, more compelling reasons for the national government’s seeming interest in and concern for the plight of the downtrodden. Instead of a genuine concern about police misbehavior and about the failure of the state government to enforce its writ throughout Uttar Pradesh, the centralizing regime of Indira Gandhi simply sought a pretext to dismiss a government of another party. Ironically, as Brass’s deft attempt to reconstruct the events that led to the dismissal of the government shows, it is not entirely clear why a postmodern analysis of the events generates any particular insights or propositions into the workings of India’s political system under Indira Gandhi.

What particular advantages, then, accrue from the adoption of this method of analysis? Brass attempts to answer this question with the standard postmodernist response: His multiple narratives underscore the contingency of various explanations for a particular event. There is little doubt in his mind that certain events involving police brutality, state complicity, and ethnoreligious violence did occur. Yet, various narrations of the particular episode reveal the interests and power positions of those narrators. Here the postmodernist approach challenges empirical social scientists who believe that causal logic and the careful collection of evidence can enable us to apprehend the causes of a specific incident. Instead Brass argues that the "truth" of a particular event may never be discovered. All one can excavate from the detritus of communal riots and outbreaks are various versions of the "truth."

His postmodernist commitment notwithstanding, Brass demonstrates an extraordinarily fine-grained knowledge of the politics of significant portions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of India’s poorest and most violent states. That said, there are some problems with the inferences that he draws from his careful study of the cases of ethnoreligious violence. His use of the term "north India" is quite deceptive. The patterns of ethnoreligious violence vary considerably throughout this sprawling region, which includes states as diverse as Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. In West Bengal, for instance, a Communist government has successfully contained ethnoreligious violence. In Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, however, the blatant interference of the national government in the internal affairs of the state has contributed to a sanguinary, ethnoreligious, and secessionist insurgency.

Brass’s propensity to make wide generalizations from a limited array of cases is more evident when he discusses the shortcomings of India’s various political and social institutions. This tendency is most evident in his discussion of the role of the elite English-language press during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. Brass describes the press at one point as "Goebbelsian." There is little question that significant sections of the Indian press supinely submitted to Indira Gandhi’s henchmen during the "state of emergency" in the late 1970s. Yet, many editors actually courted arrest and were incarcerated for refusing to comply with the dictates of government censors. In the aftermath of that period Indian journalists have routinely exposed corruption in the highest echelons of government, revealed cruel labor practices, and focused attention on the plight of India’s disenfranchised.

Brass is on far more secure footing when he develops the concept of an "institutionalized riot system." He argues that certain cities in northern India are far more prone to ethnoreligious violence owing to these sociopolitical configurations. Briefly, these riot systems involve groups of well-heeled political activists, whom Brass calls "riot specialists," who often mobilize the poor and dispossessed to organize and foment riots. In one of the more illuminating, if ultimately inconclusive, chapters of the book, he provides a fascinating account of the career and death of one such riot specialist, Kala Bachcha, in the aftermath of the brutal riots that convulsed the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. The accounts of Bachcha’s exploits during the riots vary considerably. Nevertheless, Brass’s careful reconstruction of the events that led to Bachcha’s demise provides a compelling portrait of communal relations and violence in one mid-sized Indian city that has undergone substantial industrial decline and concomitant social change.

The utility of these concepts notwithstanding, the reader is still left with a nagging question that these postmodernist accounts fail to answer: What larger material and social forces provide conditions conducive to the emergence of "institutional riot systems" in distinct parts of India?

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By Paul R. Brass. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. 317p. $55.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.

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