The Drama of Communal Violence

In the early 1960s, as a young probationer in the Indian Foreign Service, I was posted in Dharwad in Karnataka for my district training. As this was a well-known region for communal violence, I asked for a tutorial from the local superintendent of police about how they dealt with incipient and actual communal riots. He referred to me a manual going back to the days of the Raj, which had to deal with endemic communal rioting. There were various stages of policing identified. The first was to round up the “usual suspects” at well-known times of communal tensions, like the religious festivals of the two communities. Then, if processions began, and were non-violent, they should be allowed to proceed. At the first sign of violence like stone throwing, a mild lathi charge against the perpetrators was to be launched. If there was further escalation, the police should fire into the air. Only if none of these police actions succeeded should they fire on the mob as the last resort — which was to be taken as a sign of police failure.

A few years ago, living on the first floor of our house in Nizamuddin, we saw a visual enactment of these instructions. There was a piece of public land nearby on which an unauthorised shrine to a purported Muslim pir had come up. The local authorities had successfully petitioned the courts for the removal of this encroachment. This gave a local non-Muslim Congress politician the opportunity to organise a mob marching to the site to confront the police, who followed the manual by allowing the peaceful procession to proceed to the site. But, as soon as they started hurling stones at the functionaries demolishing the illegal structure, the police started a lathi charge. One of the blows fell on the politician leading the mob, who, howling that he was being killed, fled, followed by most of the mob.

The persistence of large-scale riots is associated with electoral competition and mass political mobilization.

Washington University’s Paul Brass’s important book, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, Oxford, 2015, is based partly on 30 years of research in Aligarh — which, since the days of the Raj, has been a vortex of communal violence. The book provides an anatomy of these communal riots. He seeks to explain not only why certain areas are prone to periodic rioting but also why there is abatement for much of the time, and also why there is differential spatial incidence of rioting in cities, with some areas seeing no rioting.

He shows why the social science evidence (including econometric) trying to find causal reasons for the production and persistence of communal violence is unconvincing. He writes, “What makes riots and progroms in India, or the United States or nineteenth-century Russia, so much more difficult to analyse and comprehend is that they combine objective and intentional factors, spontaneity and planning, chaos and organisation. They are best conceived as dramatic productions in which the directors are not in complete control, the cast of characters varies — some of them being paid, some of them acting voluntarily for loot or fun — and many of the parts have been rehearsed, but others have not” (p 32).

Central to these dramatic “institutionalised riot systems” are what Mr Brass calls “conversion specialists” but who are better labelled “ethnic identity entrepreneurs” (see Barbara Ballis Lal (1997): “Ethnic Identity Entrepreneurs: Their role in transracial and intercountry adoption”, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 6(2-3)), who keep the communal/ethnic pot boiling. The persistence of large-scale riots is associated with electoral competition and mass political mobilisation. They persist because “they are functionally useful to a wide array of individuals, groups, parties, and the state authorities” (p 34).

The role of the state in the persistence of communal riots is evident from all political parties — except the Communists — using a communal discourse in electoral competition. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has taken the stand of avoiding “appealing on communal grounds to either Hindus or Muslims and to instead use the full powers of the state to ensure that communal riots simply do not happen”. Thus, “in West Bengal, which experienced massive communal violence at the time of Partition and a major communal riot in Calcutta in 1964 under Congress rule, there have been no major communal riots in the past thirty years of CPM rule” (p 374).

The diminishing efficacy of the communal card was shown in the recent Bihar election. Whereas, as Surjit Bhalla has estimated (The Indian Express, 14 November, 2015), 20 per cent of the 17 per cent of Bihar’s population who are Muslim voted for the BJP in the 2014 general election, only three per cent voted for it in the Bihar Assembly election. This meant that the voting gap between the Grand Coalition and the NDA would have been only 2.9 per cent (with 102 seats for the BJP and 125 for the Grand Coalition) instead of the actual 7.8 per cent, if the Muslim vote for the NDA had held. Hopefully, the BJP will see the playing of the communal card as being counterproductive.

But, this does not mean that the communal violence drama is at an end. In fact there is currently a replay of the use made by Indira Gandhi of the 1978 Aligarh riots — which one of Mr Brass’ informants suggested were instigated by Congress sympathisers — “to discredit the Janata government that came to power after the 1977 election”. Indira Gandhi (and her son, who themselves were prone to play the Hindu card when its suited them) in 1978 “integrated the Aligarh riots into her portfolio of charges against the government to the effect that Muslims and other disadvantaged groups in Indian society were being slaughtered under Janata rule — thereby emerging as their ‘protector’ and making possible the return to the Congress in the 1980 elections of large numbers of Muslim voters who had deserted that party and Mrs Gandhi in 1977” (p 308). In her party’s agitation about the “intolerance” of the NDA, Sonia Gandhi seems to be reenacting the same drama, and also hoping with her current embroilment in the National Herald case to attain the popular martyrdom of her mother-in-law, which also contributed to Indira Gandhi’s return to power after her decisive defeat in the 1977 election.

The only way to end this drama of communal violence, from the overwhelming evidence Mr Brass presents, is that, “even with a non-professionalised police force, the control of which is itself a central prize in contemporary political conflict, riots can be prevented and controlled when the political will exists.” Perhaps if the judicial process, instead of trying to ascertain causes, solely concerned itself with assigning culpability — and thence punishment — to a failure to implement the Raj manual on controlling communal violence, it would cease to offer the functional rewards which fuel such violence. But, given the ongoing communal drama with the “intolerance” agitation, I am not hopeful.

Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.