Contours of riots

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Riot victims in a relief camp in Muzaffarnagar in December 2013. Photo: S. Subramanium

The book offers crucial insights into the way political parties, movements and governments work in vitiating or defusing the communal atmosphere.

WHILE India has witnessed many forms of ethnic violence long before Independence, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindutva ideology has clearly created a different context for violence against minority communities, particularly Muslims, or what the Hindutvawadi calls, “Babar’s santan” (Babar’s progeny). What is the nature of this violence? How different is it from the violence perpetrated in the States ruled by non-BJP parties? Such key questions have motivated research in the last several years.

Amrita Basu, the author of the book under review, Violent Conjunctures in Democratic India, is one of the leading South Asianists in the United States. She was the South Asia editor of the prestigious academic journal The Journal of Asian Studies. Amrita Basu, who teaches politics at Amherst College, has been researching questions of religious minority and collective violence for several decades and has published dozens of path-breaking essays and books.

Her research findings present crucial insights into the changing pattern of India’s recurrent violence against minority communities, particularly Muslims. Intrigued by the uneven nature of anti-Muslim violence in India, the author began to examine the variation in the violence unleashed by the Hindu Right. Between 1980 and 2008, she noted that the violence was minimal in Himachal Pradesh and extensive in Gujarat. Further, it is not just the extent of the violence but also its timing that varied from State to State. For instance, there was more violence in the early 1990s in Uttar Pradesh than in 2002. The trend was just the opposite in Gujarat.

Amrita Basu then decided to probe the anti-minority violence in the four BJP-ruled States of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to explore the patterns of violence, specifically the relationships between the political party, the movement, the State governments and the Centre. According to her, variations in these relationships influence the magnitude, spatial dimensions, timing and long-term consequences of violence. The extent of violence, she contends, depends on the nature of the ties between the party, the movement and the State.

She has sought to demonstrate empirically that the closer the ties, the worse the nature of the violence. Her line of inquiry was not limited to religion; instead, it extended to caste and class alignment. The regions in which dominant castes and classes are politically powerful than the “lower” castes and classes, she argues, are more receptive to the Hindu nationalist cause. On the basis of the extensive fieldwork she carried out in various regions, particularly in Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, she explains how the party movement creates new conditions for violence to precipitate.

The violence against Muslims becomes extensive when the BJP as a national ruling party approves the actions of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindutva-oriented organisations, some of which are described as fringe groups. Scholars and journalists working on these issues have found that the members of these so-called fringe groups are often active or former members of various Hindu right-wing organisations. According to her, these Hindu nationalist forces are highly aligned and militant when the upper castes and classes fully back the BJP and the lower caste movements are weak.

How does this research fit in with the current body of scholarship on the subject? Mass violence in India or elsewhere has fascinated scholars for a long time. In the case of India, studies have been devoted to the roles played by political parties, states, gangs, mobs and so on. Paul Brass has persuasively argued that the main factor behind recurring violence is “institutionalised riot system”.

In her research, Amrita Basu has attempted to pay attention to the role of social movements and civil society organisations, which were clearly ignored in other important interventions of research. Much of the scholarship in this context has been focussed on Europe and North America, not on South Asia. Those who have studied the social movements in Europe and North America barely explore the relationships between social movements and political parties. These observations clearly shows a perceptible gap in the emerging patterns of research on violence in South Asia.

What could be the relationship between parties and movements, which, Amrita Basu argues, are different and have complementary strengths. Movements are more radical and cyclical than parties; the movements’ activities are episodic than sustained; political parties can also prevent social movements from burning out by institutionalising their gains and placing their activists in state institutions.

Her research has many distinguishing features. First, it highlights the purposeful actions of institutions, organisations and movements in precipitating violence. It also has paid attention to negative conditions such as strong states, inter-ethnic civil society associations, multi-party systems; secondly, it finds that the strength and cohesion of certain political parties can promote rather than inhibit their use of violence; thirdly, it explores reciprocal influences among parties, states and social movements; fourthly, it attempts to make a comparison of incidence of violence across spatial domains and how it spreads to various territories.

Creating a Hindu Rashtra

The author has characterised the VHP as a social organisation and the BJP as a political party. The RSS has participated in protests and election campaigns, but it is neither a political party nor a social movement organisation. It is India’s largest and oldest non-governmental organisation. Further, it is quite insulated from society compared with political parties and social movements. Its membership criteria are restrictive. Despite its claim to be a cultural organisation, the RSS has been active in politics, shaping the politics of the BJP. It takes part in campaigns and often appoints key leaders in prominent public offices. The BJP’s present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and its previous Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, are members of the RSS. The Chief Ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra are also members of the RSS. In bringing about an ideological shift of the Indian state, the organisation clearly has a programme and it works in tandem with the BJP to shape India’s ideological future, which is to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra. While the RSS has adapted itself to changing social conditions, since its founding, it has argued that the state and religious minorities should accept the economic and social dominance of Hindus. It has embraced both strategies, sometimes providing support for the VHP and, on other occasions, for the BJP.

One of the chapters examines the case of Gujarat, where a major violence against the minority community took place in 1968, 1992 and 2002. The magnitude of the violence in Gujarat was greater than in other States: a large number of Muslims were killed, brutally; more number of Muslim women were raped in that State than in other States; and more number of property belonging to Muslims was looted and attacked. According to the author, in 2002 Gujarat represented “the perfect storm”—the convergence of the state, the party and the movement. The BJP was in power at the Centre and in the State, under Modi. What is intriguing is that the Vajpayee government at the Centre apparently tried to fix constitutional responsibility for the violence and remove Modi, but it remained limited to an inconsequential counsel and Raj Dharma (king’s obligation) for Modi. What needs to be noted is not that violence took place, and the particular conditions that favoured it, but the fact that the so-called secular regimes, particularly the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I and II (2004-2014), could not fix responsibility and failed to bring about reconciliation thereby spreading frustration and helplessness among Muslims nationally.

Further, despite an active campaign for a robust anti-Communal Violence Bill, particularly during UPA II, for which Farah Naqvi was enlisted to the high-profile National Advisory Council, nothing moved in the arena of laws. According to the noted human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, the draft prepared by the UPA had the worst elements of the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which caused a huge rift among human rights and minority rights activists all over the country. Violence occurs because there are no robust laws, which works as an incentive for these organisations. They get further incentivised by a slow judicial process. The civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad deserves appreciation for bringing many of the perpetrators of the violence under the ambit of law, which is almost unprecedented in India’s history: A civil society organisation did what the state was supposed to do. Was there a complicity between the BJP and the so-called secular regimes? How does that shape the narrative of the violence that comes out of this research?

The research observes that in Uttar Pradesh, the violence by Hindu Right organisations declined after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Hindu nationalists temporarily halted the growth of lower caste parties and movements but were unable to compete with them in the long run. It points to the fact that Hindu nationalist organisations had to address inter-caste issues to promote their agenda. The Hindu nationalist violence has not been significant either in Himachal Pradesh or in Rajasthan. The movement is relatively weak in Himachal Pradesh and strong in Rajasthan, although it has not received adequate support from the BJP in the latter. In Himachal Pradesh, neither the Jana Sangh nor the BJP depended on the Hindu Right movement’s strategies to come to power. Although the VHP mobilised activists (kar sevaks) to travel to Ayodhya in 1990 and again in 1992, the author says Himachal Pradesh did not figure prominently on the Ayodhya circuit as the recruitment pool for Hindutva activists. Why? The interesting claim made by the author is that the VHP did not target the Muslim population in the State but periodically harassed and attacked Sikh and Christian groups for being “anti-national”.

This observation is indeed interesting because the RSS always wanted to claim Sikhs as part of the larger Hindu tradition, something that the Sikh community has been reluctant to accept. At the political level, the the Shiromani Akali Dal is a coalition partner of the BJP in Punjab.

At this point, there is no sign at the national level that Hindu nationalist organisations would like to add Sikhs to the list of Muslims and Christians as non-Indians, or religious minorities who need to accept the socio-economic dominance of Hindus.

How valuable is the research from the point of view of comparative study of ethnic violence? This argument of partymovement is extremely original and there is robust empirical evidence to this. The comparative study of various States lends legitimacy to the argument. The crucial insight it offers is that mere emphasis on the state is not enough to explain either the occurrence of violence or its prevention. There is more to it than just the state.

Scholars who disagree with Ashutosh Varshney’s explanation, and rightly so, often cited the Left Front regime’s enviable track record for keeping ethnic peace in a State with a troubled record of violence for many decades. When one factors in party ideology, in fact, the argument to explain the accomplishment of the Left Front regime resonates in this work. If the party ideology is meant for keeping the peace, the state can work for it easily as was the case in West Bengal, but if the ideology is to perpetuate hostility and unleash violence, the state can work in that direction as this research suggests. The book is a must read for scholars working on ethnic violence.

The research design, the argument and the method make it an indispensable reading material for any South Asianist.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He is the editor of Communalism in Postcolonial of India: Changing Contours.


Brass, Paul. R (2003): The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, University of Washington Press: Washington.

Rehman, Mujibur (ed.) (2016): Communalism in Postcolonial India: Changing Contours, Routledge: New Delhi.

Vrinda Grover and Saumay, Uma (2017): Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice, 2007-2015, United Christian Foundation and Media House: New Delhi.

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