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inside the heart of darkness


Riot Politics
ARKESH AJAY | Delhi, July 1, 2013 15:08
Tags : inside the heart of darkness |

For 11 years we have visited and revisited the horrific riots that engulfed Gujarat in 2002 after a coach of a train was set ablaze at Godhra station, killing 48 people. Those riots claimed over 2000 Muslim lives, while many more were tortured, burnt, maimed, and raped. Words cannot encompass the horrors of these crimes. Thousands of years of human civilization is put to shame if you look at what transpired on even a single day of those months. And therefore, however many times we visit these riots, we would still have not done enough to understand exactly what did we do wrong to end up with what we did. Many scholars and journalists have attempted to deconstruct the complicated web of mobilisation and instigation that was used to carry out these riots, but only a few have done it in as great detail, and yet fewer have such extensive fieldwork to back their theories with, as Ward Berenschot has achieved in his ambitious book Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State.

Berenschot did not come looking for easy answers, and hence he spent over 15 months in 2005-06 living in Ahmedabad’s most violent neighborhoods. This groundwork is the basis of his investigation into what he calls the ‘riot networks’ of Gujarat: the web of political actors that act as the mechanism for such large-scale violence. Any reasonable study into any large scale riot would always rule out the ‘spontaneous violence’ rhetoric - the ‘picture of evil politicians and innocent masses’. This book attempts to understand as to ‘how and why political leaders can tap into the existing fears, hopes and drives of those who actually perpetrate violence’. It does so by unravelling the formation and functioning of the networks of grassroots actors that actually carry out these riots.

The author finds answers to these questions in the day-to-day functioning of the political machinery of the state, and its wide role as an intermediary between the state and its citizens. As Gujarat progressed, the resources at the state’s disposal expanded, but not sufficiently for its ever expanding population; and hence a privileged access to these resources, even basic ones, is the biggest want of all of the state’s citizens. When the bureaucracy lacks the wherewithal or just the will to provide for everyone, intermediaries find an opportunity to thrive. Political networks act on these intermediaries, and in return gain electoral support. The book argues, and with considerable merit, that this dependence of both citizens and state institutions on these networks of brokers generates the network’s ‘interest in, and capacity for, instigating and organising communal violence’. When the time comes for riots, and they are necessarily always political tools, these networks possess the necessary authority, contacts and incentives to carry out violence, and end up acting as the infrastructure for it.

The book charts the changes that have happened in the patronage channels of Gujarat over the decades since Independence, and even before, and how it has been correlated to the rise of Hindu nationalism. It then explores the resonance between identity politics, political mediation, and communal violence. In a complex political landscape it seems necessary not only to create and exploit identities, and emphasise the commonality of sharing them with the electorate, but also to build antagonism against people who lie outside this identity.

Berenschot may not possess the glibness of a novelist, but he is brilliant and meticulous as a scholar. A glimpse of it comes early in the book. In the chapter titled ‘Explaining India’s Hindu-Muslim Violence’, he lists six different approaches to understand the outbreaks of communal violence in India, before he explains his own unique approach that he took in the course of his study, which draws on all of them, but still maintains open-mindedness.

Berenschot’s is no exercise in catharsis – there are no simplistic villains he cuts out for your hatred to be directed at. It is an academic pursuit in understanding why riots happen, and how identity and economic and political interests play a role in it. It gives no simple solutions, but leaves you with plenty of right questions, answers to which we must keep seeking in our continuous quest for a just democracy.

Author: Ward Berenschot

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 9788129123756

Pages: 252

Price: Rs. 495

Publisher: Rainlight Rupa

Category: Politics

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017