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Hate and The State: Hindu-Muslim Riot Politics in India

THE PHRASE “Gujarat 2002” has, for the past decade, struck fear and shame in the hearts of many Indians. It marks a period of about three months, from late February 2002, when the Western state of Gujarat, and especially its first city, Ahmedabad, erupted into ugly mass violence targeted at local Muslim communities. About 2,500 people died (though official figures claim half that number), and tens of thousands were displaced, many of them permanently.

The episode produced a sense of national crisis: the violence seemed overwhelmingly directed at the Muslim minority (though Hindus also died); much of it was heinous and brutal (particularly for women and children); and by all independent accounts, it proceeded with the full knowledge, support, and complicity of the state government, led by the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party. Worse, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been re-elected to power twice in Gujarat since that dark time. The state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, enjoys such absolute political popularity on his home turf that he is currently presenting himself as a possible contender for Prime Ministership in India’s general elections in 2014. In the moral conscience of secular Indians, both within Gujarat and elsewhere, 2002 remains a calamitous setback for India’s diverse and democratic polity.

In the bloody tumult of Gujarat in 2002, one incident that stood out for its heinousness took place in a locality called Naroda Patiya, an industrial suburb of Ahmedabad, where close to a hundred Muslims were massacred on February 28. The details of the rape, gang rape, and mutilation of women are too awful to bear repeating—in any case media reports at the time, as well as subsequent recollections, have been graphic enough. This year, on August 29, a verdict pronounced by a fast-track Gujarat court on the basis of a report filed by a Special Investigative Team (SIT), convicted 32 persons for their role as perpetrators in the Narodiya Patiya massacre. Those sentenced include Maya Kodnani, a gynecologist, a thrice-elected legislator from Naroda constituency, and a former minister for Woman and Child Development in Modi’s cabinet, as well as Babubhai Patel or Babu Bajrangi, a local leader of one of the Hindu nationalist organizations on the far right, the militant Bajrang Dal. Kodnani faces 28 years of imprisonment; Patel, a life-sentence. Neither one was sentenced to be hanged, even though India still upholds the death penalty.

The Gujarat verdict has been ubiquitously described as “stunning,” because so few expected any justice would be done, and because powerful politicians such as Kodnani and Patel, protected and promoted by the BJP, and by Modi personally, were indicted at long last. Never before in the history of India’s courts has a sitting legislator been given what is effectively a life-sentence for inciting mass violence. Stunning also was the fact that Kodnani is a woman and a doctor; that she was repeatedly elected to her seat in the Gujarat legislature; and that Modi actually rewarded her ghastly instigation and abetment of violence (for example, by distributing sharp weapons to rioters) by appointing her a minister—with ghoulish irony—in charge of the welfare of women and children.

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Modi’s escalating efforts to project himself as prime ministerial material, as well as his insistent denials that any harm was done to Gujarat’s Muslims with his government’s complicity, have been seriously damaged. The challenge to his apparent impunity is indeed stunning, for him as for the public. But the Naroda Patiya verdict also rekindles in the nation’s consciousness the old trauma of why, how, and when Mahatma Gandhi’s Gujarat became the theater of India’s worst nightmare of religious politics, sectarian strife and horrible, indeed atavistic, violence.

The term that Gandhi used to spell out his political creed of non-violence in the first half of the twentieth century throughout India’s anti-colonial struggle was ahimsa. We now think of ahimsa as a Gandhian coinage, but in fact the term and the idea both existed for close to three millennia in Indian religious and philosophical thought, particularly in Jainism and Buddhism. The significant presence of Jains in elite Gujarati society—the Jains have constituted wealthy commercial classes from ancient times, and continue to do so in Gujarat today—exposed Gandhi to the concept of ahimsa, literally “the absence of the desire to harm others,” from a very young age.

As he became the leader of India’s nationalist movement against the British Raj, Gandhi transposed non-violence from the esoteric and ascetic doctrines of the Jain philosophy into popular politics, urging the people to fight for the truth without visiting violence upon their enemies, even the hated English rulers. For Gandhi, India’s political goal was swaraj or self-rule, but for every Indian freedom-fighter, self-rule was not only a collective project of emancipation from foreign rule; it was also the effort to liberate the self from the desire to harm others, and thereby to achieve a real mastery over violent impulses lodged in each and every human being. In the Gandhian struggle, ahimsa and swaraj were inextricably connected to one another—there could be no true freedom, for the individual or for India, without non-violence.

British India’s violent partition into the two nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947 undid Gandhi’s decades-long leadership of a non-violent freedom movement. He was devastated by the slaughter of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs at the hands of their fellow-countrymen. Unable to bear the ripping apart of the subcontinent, the millions dead and displaced, the sectarian animosities spreading like wildfire from Punjab in the west to Bengal in the east, he retreated from public life. Six months later, in January 1948, he was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic, who represented the resentful hope of many Indians that if there were no more Gandhi, there would be no more archaic talk of ahimsa hampering the unambiguously violent advance of the new nation into its postcolonial future.

In keeping with this cruel volte-face of history, Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, was the first to forget him and move on. Today the symbol of Gujarat is not Gandhi but Modi, who could hardly be a more Manichean Other to the Mahatma. He is committed to the unashamed deployment of himsa—etymologically, both “harm” and “the desire to harm”—as a necessary tool of governance and development (his two pet agendas, according to his own propaganda). It is not only the fact of violence but also the hidden agenda—the wish to dominate the weak, to put minorities in their place, to establish supremacy through bullying and hurting the most vulnerable of Gujarat’s citizens—that makes Modi’s politics starkly anti-Gandhian.

The name given in Indian politics to strife between religious groups is “communal violence,” and the ideology driving such violence—a peculiarly Indian inflection of Fascism—is called “communalism.” Throughout the past century, in both British India and independent India, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others, indeed all types of Indian groups whose identities are based broadly on religion and on religious politics, have been both the perpetrators and the victims of communal violence.

From its earliest appearance in Indian political discourse—in 1905, when the Viceroy Lord Curzon announced the partition of the province of Bengal into two Hindu-majority and a Muslim-majority sectors—communal antagonism between groups has been seen as the outcome of a meddling, malignant state, out to “divide-and-rule.” Partition in 1947 was widely perceived as an apotheosis of such policies on the part of the British. After independence, the Indian state—and particularly the ruling Congress Party that led the national movement since its foundation in 1885—smoothly took over the function of dividing communities and setting them against one another for electoral gains and raisons d’état. In recent memory, communal violence against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 (following on the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards), and against Muslims in North India and Bombay in 1992–1993 (following on the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by the BJP and its Hindu majoritarian allies) both vindicated the assumption of government complicity in the targeting of particular groups.

Gujarat 2002 was no different. The state became the source of threat, rather than the refuge, for its Muslims. (Proving this well-known fact in court has been an uphill battle for survivors, witnesses, and concerned organizations.) The term that the modern state has deployed to describe communal violence while absolving itself of responsibility, is “communal riot.” The word “riot” suggests the image of unruly, irrational, and violent citizens, who must be curbed, controlled, and perhaps incarcerated (if not put down or taken out altogether) by the authorities. Delhi 1984 has often been called “the anti-Sikh riots”; post-Babri 1993 violence “the Bombay riots”; and inevitably, what happened in Gujarat in 2002 was also cast as spontaneous “rioting” rather than the planned, targeted murder of a very large number of people belonging to one community with the full cooperation of the law and order machinery.

When Gandhi advocated ahimsa, he taught his followers to curb their violent tendencies, to fortify themselves against the urge to “riot” against the overbearing force of the British colonial state. The idea that violence will bubble up and erupt, like lava that runs just beneath the skin of the body politic, has been used to ominous effect by guilty politicians. Rajiv Gandhi, son of the slain Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, spoke of the gruesome massacre of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi in early November 1984 as the inevitable destruction that ensues, the earth that shakes, “when a big tree falls.” Narendra Modi talked about the horrors visited upon Gujarat’s Muslims in spring 2002 in terms of “action” and “reaction,” applying the pseudo-Newtonian language of inevitability to killings that had actually taken months if not years to orchestrate and realize.

Ward Berenschot’s new book, Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State renders signal service to the social science of violence, particularly communal violence in South Asia, in two respects. First, it clarifies the role of the state in engineering and executing such violence through an intricate coordination of political actors, bureaucrats, police and ordinary citizens—Berenschot fills out the somewhat abstract formulation of what it means, in concrete terms, for the state to have a policy of “divide-and-rule.” Second, it demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that rioting is anything but spontaneous, unplanned, unpredictable, and subjective. It is, rather, a well-understood and well-recognized form of political engagement, with all of the institutional, administrative, and ideological paraphernalia necessary for organized and comprehensible political activity undertaken by individuals and groups who stand in a series of determinate relationships with one another.

Communal violence is not the magical effluvium of disembodied state power—it is the carefully constructed artifact of what Berenschot names “riot networks”; and the communal riot is the visible outcome of a particular form of politics that Berenschot names “riot politics,” which carries on in a regular, routine, continuous way, punctuated by the spectacular episodes of violence that it is designed to deliver now and again. As elections take place from time to time in a properly functioning democracy, so riots take place from time to time in a properly functioning communal state.

Through immersive observation and extensive interviews conducted in Ahmedabad localities in 2005 and 2006, Berenschot, who speaks some Gujarati, builds up a number of credible portraits of the people behind riots—the netas (politicians), goondas (strongmen), and chamchas (sycophants) for whom “rioting is maintaining relations.” From the outside, these people might appear as anti-political, sociopathic, almost inhuman; but in reality they are firmly embedded in their neighborhoods, communities, and the larger urban fabric, where who they are, what they do, and why they do it are all perfectly tractable to others within their circles. But Berenschot does not want to humanize and thus vindicate the authors of terrible violence. Instead he wishes to enter into the intricate ecology of relationships—the infrastructure of violence—the social psychology of a place that is diverse but also divided—the conditions of possibility that turn neighbors into informants and attackers, and peaceable, even cowardly citizens into inflamed mobs of rapists and butchers. Regular problems of access to state resources and electoral power; regular forms of political mediation and institutional corruption; regular actions and interactions involving bureaucrats, politicians, party workers, policemen, social workers, civil society activists, lawyers; are also the stuff of which, occasionally, so-called riots are made.

Berenschot inserts himself (a foreign anthropologist) in three socio-economically distinctive parts of the city over a period of some fifteen to eighteen months. He follows a range of characters—from legislators and parliamentarians, to opposition party leaders and political activists, to fixers, handlers, procurers, mediators, municipal councilors, assassins, ideologues, spokespersons and hangers-on—all of whom populate what he calls the “institutional riot system.” The worlds of the people that he describes are almost jarringly bustling and vital—a constant reminder that rioting is how these individuals and many thousands of others like them make their living and get by in contemporary Gujarat. The persons he discusses come from a spectrum of castes, religious communities, and economic backgrounds; he also looks at some women of the Hindu right (he mentions Maya Kodnani in passing, with apparently no inkling of her future indictment as a mass murderer). The overall mood of the book is busy, upbeat—in contrast to, say, some of the films made in recent years about Gujarat 2002, such as Rakesh Sharma’s Lanzmannian Final Solution (2004) and Nandita Das’s brooding Firaaq (2008), both of which are heavy with the unspeakable memories and the scars of deadly violence. Riot Politics is more a vivid snapshot of a society where like many other kinds of activity and exchange, communal violence too is part and parcel of business as usual.

This approach is extremely helpful, because it distances itself equally from the notion that the state systematically invests in social conflict and the assumption that human beings are already always susceptible to what George Kateb called “political evil.” It also wades squarely into the question that has long troubled many analysts of modern South Asia: Why is mass violence in this part of the world not exactly genocidal? What—apart from numbers—sets communal violence apart from what is defined, in the parlance of international law, as “genocide”? Why can we think of Gujarat 2002 as stopping short of, or being qualitatively different from, a genocide of Gujarati Muslims? Berenschot’s careful exposition of riot politics, premised on the existence, cultivation, and maintenance of riot networks, provides a robust model for why even extreme and shocking communal violence is not much more than an extension of ordinary institutional vicissitudes and political processes in a mixed and internally fractured society.

Berenschot’s fine-grained analysis shows that even what happened in 2002, as well as its aftermath that still continues to vitiate political life in Gujarat, is not as exceptional as we might suppose. In the longer historical context of postcolonial Gujarati politics, and in the complex web of give-and-take that makes up the everyday unfolding of the political in Gujarat, such violence does not mark a setting apart of people into rigid categories of perpetrators and victims, murderers and Muselmänner, “sovereign power” and “bare life.” While it is true that the watershed of 2002 produced many new slums, ghettos, and refugee settlements for internally exiled Muslims, and that living conditions in these areas are abysmal, there is also a sense in which the continuum of prejudice and exclusion both precedes and stretches on after the pogroms.

It would seem that state institutions, political parties, and civil society are arranged in a circle, and sometimes—at moments that are not quite predictable, but not utterly preposterous either—at the center of these linkages there opens up the abyss of unimaginable violence. Gandhi apprehended that violence is the appalling hub of both social networks and individual consciousness. The sovereignty of the self lies precisely in its mastery over deep, primordial, and adamantine violence. Political freedom does not reside in the sovereign state’s establishment of its exclusive monopoly over violence, but in the complete or near-complete extinguishing of the desire to harm from the very orientation of the self towards the other. Even as an old man, Gandhi recognized, in his own stubbornly assertive sexual urges, the veiled face of his greatest life-long enemy, ahimsa: the will to power, the desire to dominate, the urge to do violence to another. Literally to his dying day, still obsessed with a recalcitrant celibacy, an elusive detachment, he never stopped trying to achieve ahimsa.

The BJP was defeated in the general elections of 2004, and has spent the past eight years in the political wilderness, at least at the level of national politics. Whether it can recover lost ground in the next couple of years remains to be seen—for now, its prospects and its preparedness compare rather well to the disarray of the Republican Party in America. But in Gujarat, Modi has clung tenaciously to power. Increasingly, he fancies himself a national leader of the Hindu Right. Manipulative and mendacious media stories set him up as India’s next Prime Minister, even though his political creed bluntly impugns the country’s constitutionally mandated secular character, and he, his party and his government—including twisted figures like Maya Kodnani, the woman who abetted the torture, humiliation, rape and murder of other women—have the blood of thousands of Muslims on their hands.

In such a setting, scholarship such as Berenschot’s ethnography of what we may characterize as “riot culture” assumes a significance far beyond the academy. It helps bring to the fore the mutually enabling relationship of modern hate and the modern state: two entities with which the citizens of democratic India, as much as any other nation in the world today, must familiarize themselves to a far greater extent than they might have hoped a few decades ago, at the time of the founding of their new republic.

Ananya Vajpeyis book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India was published in September by Harvard University Press. She is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.