Mar 25, 2009

The Riots of Passage

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
- Mahatma Gandhi

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

At the outset it is important to underline the fact that most riots in India have refused to fit into any conceivable definition of 'communal' abhorrence. Most such incidents have been a completely one-sided and meticulously targeted carnage of innocent lives, something much closer to a pogrom or an ethnic cleansing. Moreover, the selective violence perpetrated in each such case has been done with remarkable precision. This has more often than not suggested assiduous planning and seamless collation of information over a protracted period, which is in stark contrast to the usually spontaneous mob frenzy that is characteristic of a communal riot. It also clearly indicates collusion and not merely the indulgence of the state machinery and the ruling political establishment. Such condemnable acts of genocide would always point to a trigger, but that trigger could have been just anything; any seemingly provocative act on the part of any individual or group, possibly trivial or even irrelevant, would have led to similar consequences.

When a mob murders and rapes with nonchalance and reckless abandon, it does not require any provocation or solicit any justification. Deadly ethnic riots are characterized by lucid madness - a confluence of sadism, euphoria and bestial slaughter steeped in elements of prudence and foresight. Such riots usually induce an orgy of killing that is punctuated by interludes of detached planning. They are conflagarated by an amalgamation of hypervigilance and circumspection. The rioters imagine themselves to be engaged in heroic acts of self-defense against real or imagined threats that are grossly magnified, often overestimating the dangers they face and misperceiving the intentions and actions of their target group.

The pervasive emotions typical to such events are anxiety and hatred - emotions that cannot be fully explained by any rational analysis. Crowds participating in ethnic riots tend to engage in a great deal of faulty reasoning, and in the magnification of the danger faced by the group they represent. Before the actual riot occurs, there are often false rumours of aggression, usually of events that have not occurred at all or are not in the form that the rumour depicts them as having taken. Often these false rumors describe events that are exactly the sort of event that is about to be undertaken by the rioting mob itself.

Individuals participating in violence indulge in angry, but pleasurable, violence - often experiencing a cathartic effect of their aggression. The mob takes pleasure in over-doing violence. It often trades off the possibility of killing a larger number of persons for the more certain pleasure of killing a smaller number using the slower techniques of torture and mutilation. When conventional norms are inoperative, sadists become models for emulation and respect in ways that they are not in ordinary times. How else can a mob that slits the stomach of a seven-month pregnant woman, pulls out the foetus and smashes it to the ground, be explained by any shred of reason or sanity?

Anger can grow over time, be stored, redirected, and then released all at once. The memory of prior events can be unleashed by a current event to enhance the level of anger. Rioters connect today’s provocative action by a hated ethnic group to yesterday’s. In severely divided societies, there is plenty of accumulated anger, and the riot is one gateway for its release. Because such violence is born of hatred, it always aims to degrade and destroy rather than merely rebel or punish.

An expansive study of the history of communal riots in independent India would reveal startling truths that tear at the very foundations of our belief and render false our memories of a lifetime. Riots in India are not a national phenomenon; they are highly localized. In a country that remains mainly rural, religious violence is a chiefly urban problem. The countryside accounts for merely under 4% of all riot-related deaths. Moreover, riots are largely concentrated in 4 of India’s 28 states. On a per capita basis, the worst states are Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar.

More startlingly, about 70% of Hindu-Muslim violence occurs, albeit repeatedly, in only 30 of over 400 cities in India. Close to half of all deaths occur in just 8 cities - all of which have a substantial Muslim minority but also a high literacy rate and a large middle class. Unfortunately, the megacities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata all feature in this infamous list. Recently, Bangalore has been vying, thanks to its flourishing right-winged bigotry, for a respectable spot on this illustrious roll.

It is no surprise, though it may seem so, why there are no comparable outbreaks in other cities with almost identical demographic details. The conspicuous absence of lethal riots can be attributed to the presence of civic associations. Pre-existing channels of civic engagement between communities is the single most important predictor of whether a community will respond violently to ethnic provocations. Local associations that make their members aware of the dangers of ethnic violence also work to suppress the violent and criminal elements
interested in exploiting ethnic conflict.

Civil society, and not government, is the answer. The most violence-resistant and stable states and cities are those with flourishing labour as well as industrial, educational, social and political associations - inclusive and all-embracing. With inter-communal networks of engagement and open channels of communication, ethnic tensions and conflicts are moderated and managed. Without a cohabitation environment, segregated lives would invariably highlight real or imagined differences, leading to ambiguities in individual identity and culminating in hatred. The policy implication is clear. We need to support with practical measures the growth of integrative civic associations that promote the mutual interests of different ethnic groups in a constructive manner. This approach would be far more effectual in preventing and managing violence than merely concentrating on inter-ethnic dialogue.

Lethal ethnic riots are not random and/or unpredictable events. They are responses to certain conditions that can be understood, analyzed, and prevented. Governments can reduce the likelihood of ethnic riots breaking out by increasing the perception by potential rioters that participating in riots is risky. While events at the national or regional level may spark ethnic violence in India, the response to those sparks, ranging from ethnic tension to ethnic genocide, occurs at the local level. Therefore, explanations of why some Indian communities respond violently to ethnic provocations expressed at the national level while others do not must be found in factors operating primarily at the local level. Citizens seeking to prevent ethnic violence must coerce the government to be accountable for its failure to take appropriate measures to dispel violence.

The dark days of alienation will be over. The new dawn will promise bright skies and radiant sunshine and the bliss of tolerance. Only one black cloud remains to be blown away - a fair deal to families of the victims of violence. These riots have all been the most horrendous of crimes committed on a mass scale, a stigma for a nation that prides itself on its "unity in diversity". Sadly, the stories all tell us that there is only diversity, and unity is yet to be found, that Holy Grail.

* All statistical data and research information courtesy "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India" by Prof. Ashutosh Varshney of the University of Michigan


  1. Was there any study done one communal riots in India? Can you please post that link here ?

  2. Nitwit:
    Oops! Sorry mate, I forgot to acknowledge the source of the statistical data and research info. Rectified it now. Just Google the name of the book or "Ashutosh Varshney".

  3. Thanks Surbhi.

    Here's a link you may be interested in.


Your comments will not be moderated, so feel free to speak your mind. However, with freedom comes responsibility, so abusive and/or violent language is strictly prohibited.