Of riots, future and past

How the definition of 'riot' differs in India from how the rest of the world understands it—and how they are allowed, nay, even fomented sometimes, rather than anticipated and avoided

Gyanvapi Masjid, Varanasi
(photo via Twitter)
Gyanvapi Masjid, Varanasi (photo via Twitter)

Aakar Patel

The word 'riot' is defined as a 'violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd'.

Generally, the world over, the word is understood elsewhere to mean the fury of society against the state. For example, the Paris riot in 1968, which began with student protests against imperialism and capitalism. Or the Los Angeles riot of 1992, following the acquittal of the police officers who assaulted Rodney King.

In 2011, after the fatal police shooting of a man named Mark Duggan, there were riots in cities across England, in which 5 were killed and 3,000 arrested. In the riots that broke out in France this year after the killing of a 17-year-old by police, three people died, of whom two perished in fires.

This word, then, does not capture the meaning of a 'riot' as it is understood in India, that of organised violence against citizens by other citizens. During an episode of such violence, the state steps aside and allows—till the violence naturally cools down—the passion of the majority to reveal itself as arson, rape, loot and murder. Elements of the state often actively participate in the violence, feeling the same strong emotions as the mob it is meant to subdue.

We can see evidence of this unfold before us.

Even the best governed states do not appear to have the capacity to control the damage and those who are counted as our most competent chief ministers have failed on this count. It is also true that the violence is justified in the minds of many, including those who lead the state.

In an interview with the Indian Express published a few years ago, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was asked: “The Muzaffarnagar riots took place under the last government but of the 44 cases decided, there has been acquittal in 43 cases. Why isn’t your government filing appeals?”

The chief minister replied: “The chargesheets in the Muzaffarnagar cases were filed by the previous government. The (riots) were the result of biased policies and failure of that government, under which the whole society was differentiated on the basis of caste, belief and religion. There is nothing like that in our government. On the question of appeal, we will do that if needed. If there is no need, why should we unnecessarily intervene in the matter of the court?”

The root of such violence is an underlying sentiment existing perennially in a large part of our society, and kept stoked through politics. An external trigger then sets it afire: an assassination in 1984, an act of vandalism in 1992 or an incident on a train in 2002.

The other difference between the riot abroad and the riot here is that of spontaneity. The riots referred to in the instances above were not anticipated. In India, we are aware that the deliberate raising of the temperature will have consequences.

The BJP legislations by Union and state governments on cattle transport, beef possession, interfaith marriage, the absurd and Kafka-esque (as described by the Economist) events of the NRC in Assam, the criminalisation of divorce, what we are doing in Srinagar, and so on, must be seen in this light. Such work keeps the pot boiling.

A collection of columns written in Indian newspapers in recent years will read like the diary of Victor Klemperer. He was an academic, a scholar of languages, who kept a record of what was done to him and others in Germany in the 1930s. There is something happening daily on this front, no matter what else goes on in the economy, or in Manipur or at the border in Ladakh.

Action at the Kashi Vishwanath temple this month will produce a similar sentiment as was produced by events in Ayodhya earlier. The decision handed down by the Supreme Court in the latter matter has not been discussed in politics as a property dispute, which is how the SC views it. It has instead been projected as vengeance and retribution against a building made five centuries ago — Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in 1526 and died in Agra five years later, aged 47 — on the site of another building apparently made earlier.

How much earlier was the previous structure built?

The BJP MP from Baghpat, Satya Pal Singh, when he was still an IPS officer wrote an article titled ‘Proving the historicity of Ram’ in 2008, in which he determined that Lord Ram lived 8,69,108 years ago. Meaning 500,000 years before the appearance of Homo sapiens. That is, of course, only if one believes in the theory of evolution, which Mr Singh, who headed education in India through his human resource development portfolio in the first Modi government, says he doesn’t.

It will be interesting to see how the world views us Indians as we now go about resolving this pressing matter in Kashi judicially and how we will anticipate and control what will come after the survey is over. It would be too much to hope that the state is mindful of potential consequences and doing what it can to mitigate them as yet another crisis approaches.

Finally, then, to go back to where we started, a 'riot' in India is how we define what happens when the majority inflicts organised violence on a minority community.

When the minority responds — and again, we are seeing this in Manipur — this violence is classified differently in India and given another name.

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