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Riot politics: Hindu-Muslim violence and the Indian State By Ward Berenschot, Rainlight, Rs 495

On March 1, 2002, two days after the death of kar sevaks on the Sabarmati Express, Narendra Modi had explained the cause of the violence that had engulfed Gujarat in a magazine interview. “What we are witnessing in Gujarat at this time”, Modi said, “is a chain of action and reaction.” Modi’s analysis, and not-too-tacit endorsement, of the bloodshed was not an aberration. Rajiv Gandhi, too, had explained the butchering of Sikhs in Delhi after his mother’s assassination by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” Similarly, the burning of a Hindu family in Mumbai’s Jogeshwari was used as an excuse by the Shiv Sena to annihilate Muslims in 1993. Not just politicians but the Indian media usually rely on ‘triggers’ — immediate causal factors — to explain the onset of a communal frenzy. Most analysts agree that in Gujarat the burning train had set the state aflame.

This line of reasoning postulates that tension between intrinsically opposed entities, be they religious groups (Hindus versus Muslims, Gujarat 2002) or ethnicities (Bodos versus Bengali Muslims, Assam 2012), forms the key in understanding violence. But the limitations of this theoretical model — also known as the ‘primordialist’ approach — and of media analyses are far too many. They do not explain, for instance, the peaceful coexistence of diverse faiths and ethnicities in India. Moreover, religious strife can also be a product of several overlapping factors. The riots in Assam in 2012 revealed that religion and ethnicity, as opposed to any one of the two factors, contributed to the killings.

A more useful approach to understand communal violence would be to consider embedded structural faultlines, as well as history, something that Ward Berenschot does in his illuminating analysis of the Gujarat pogrom. (The term, pogrom, is being used deliberately, given the evidence strewn together by Berenschot as well as by other investigators.) The importance of Berenschot’s work, however, does not lie in its ability to affix culpability. Its utility is two-fold. Berenschot identifies the weaknesses that plague existing theoretical models, including the primordialist edifice, which have attempted to interpret the riots in Gujarat. But Berenschot isn’t interested in merely spouting theory. His book is a rich ethnographic account that locates the roots of violence in the seemingly mundane exchanges between the State and its subjects in everyday life.

The gist of Berenschot’s argument runs on these lines. A feeble State, one that is not yet capable of providing equitable services to every section of society, has intensified citizens’ dependence on local actors — politicians, social workers and criminals — to gain access to critical resources. This dependency has resulted in the creation of channels of patronage. The crumbs that are thrown at citizens by the facilitators, Berenschot discovers during his informal interactions with respondents, include a range of civic services: the quick repairing of a leaking drain, access to educational institutions, hospitals or cheaper medicine, and so on. But the service rendered is conditional. The unprecedented scale of mobilization that was witnessed during the Gujarat riots can be attributed to this form of regressive interdependency.

The interdependency, however, is not uncomplicated. The choices exercised by the people and their facilitators in the chain of bloody events that Berenschot examines were based on careful consideration. The people would support a leader, even if he or she is implicated in the violence, on the basis of his/her capacity to widen their reach to State resources. The mobilizing of foot-soldiers across class lines is brought about by ‘incentives’ — services that have been denied to citizens by the State. But factors like caste and religion also play a pivotal role. This is yet another important contribution on Berenschot’s part. This is because the State remains an enfeebled entity not just in Gujarat but in other Indian states as well. Yet, Gujarat has remained particularly susceptible to the communal scourge. Berenschot’s firm grasp on Gujarat’s history helps him trace the vulnerability to the communalization of existing patronage institutions. In Gujarat, political and economic transitions had led to the demise of community institutions like guilds and pols. Their successor was the labour union, the Textile Labour Association in particular, which was treated by the Congress as yet another conduit to garner political support. In return, mill workers were provided with basic amenities. But the collapse of the textile industry, along with dwindling political support for the Congress, led to Hindu nationalist forces monopolizing the patronage network. More than ideological affinity, the participation of the people in riots can be ascribed to their dependency on communal organizations in control of prized, but scarce, resources.

But even a polarized society such as Gujarat can throw up intriguing possibilities. Raamrahimnagar, Berenschot discovers to his (and our) surprise, has not witnessed a riot since 1969. Berenschot attributes the harmony between Muslims and Dalits in this locality to the existence of an apolitical, community-oriented model of benefaction. This is also true of Mumbai where mohalla peace committees continue to battle religious polarization. Ironically, Raamrahimnagar’s success in battling communalism raises broader, troubling questions regarding India’s democratic ethic. Should the Indian State — a weak, partisan institution — be regarded as the hallmark of a representative society?

Berenschot suggests that strengthening the State’s capacities to provide for the people would ultimately prevent its capitulation to intermediaries that are inimical to secularism. But the absence of political will and an unaccountable bureaucracy are likely to prove formidable opponents in this respect. Berenschot’s hopes thus lie with grassroot organizations — ward committees, NGOs — and the media to create sustained public pressure to make the State accessible. This is an optimistic, and not a pragmatic, proposition. In India, the lines separating profit and philanthropy have turned fuzzy within the media and NGOs. However, community-based networks, such as the ones in Raamrahimnagar and in Mumbai’s neighbourhoods, can prove to be reliable partners. Berenschot’s emphasis on local institutions in the war against communalism is welcome. But it is surprising to note that he chooses to ignore the factors that have led to the dissipation of the legacy of the Mahatma, that untiring proponent of secularism and decentralization, while discussing ways to battle a serious contagion.