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Essay

The changing structure of riots

The recent riots in West Bengal and Bihar have got stuck in the gullet of Indian democracy. These riots are disturbing not only as new rituals of violence but as part of the more cynical narratives of electoral democracy. In fact, as acts of violence, they are depressing thrice over as events. First, as premeditated acts of brutality followed by a sterile weakness of governmental response. What is even more sinister is the narrative of legitimacy built in the aftermath of a riot to normalise them. Let’s try to understand the changing morphology of riots with West Bengal and Bihar as illustrations.

Ram Navami violence

Between communal riots and the lynch mob, India has added a new dimension to its repertoire of violence. But unlike the lynch mob, which feeds on a hunt for an individual, the riot has a complexity we have not fully grasped. Partly this is because riots have changed structurally over time. Conventionally, a riot had a short sequence followed by an almost surprising return to normalcy, where rioter and victim played neighbours again. The new riots have raised a different spectre of violence. Typical of this new style is what one can dub Ram Navami riots.

Associated with the festival of the birth of Lord Ram, these are no longer small mohalla or nukkad affairs. Their change in scale is awesome, with some Ram Navami processions attracting over 25,000 people, such as the one in Bihar Sharif. The festival is used as a pretext for large pre-mediated riots involving murder, arson and destruction of property. The forces of law and order seem lukewarm or ill-equipped to fight such violence. Ironically, policemen who are supposed to control riots have been occasionally seen leading them using the most aggressive of words. The Bihar Home Secretary admitted this to the media but also sought to explain it by saying policeman are a part of society, and may get carried away by the prejudices of society. The question is when the law is seen to shield criminals, who does the victim as citizen turn to?

Another interesting point to note is that there is almost no admission of guilt. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in fact, continues to play the political game by accusing the police of being one-sided in support of minorities. Worse, it often pretends to be proactive and lead an inquiry team to Opposition-ruled States where riots have taken place and where the government lacks the guts to challenge them. They brazenly attacked the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal even when it was clear that their cohorts in the Bajrang Dal were responsible. This creates a politics of gimmickry and misinformation leading to delays in investigation and a climate of hypocrisy.

The election trigger

To a large extent this new form of rioting stems from the trigger of elections. Riots become a way of dividing society along standard fault lines and intensifying solidarity and suspicion as a way of consolidating vote-banks. The number of riots seems to double or triple before election year. Mass mobilisation for Ram Navami is a new phenomenon including the entry of new self-styled religious samitis and a tendency to expand beyond the locality.

Banally, each riot begins with an act of obtaining permission. The administration is usually reluctant to deny permission, sensitive as they are to the claims of religious groups and also the political furore that follows a denial for any religious performance. The narrative then moves from the police station to the digital space. The Internet is a great carrier of instant rumours. In Nawada, riots were triggered when an idol of Hanuman was found vandalised. In fact, one of the government’s first moves during the recent riots in West Bengal was the suspension of Internet services.

Then, there is the politics of the route. The control of routes almost becomes the ground for riots. All parties usually become unyielding insisting on pushing through a Muslim mohalla. It inevitably becomes a tussle between Bajrang Dal egos and Muslim intransigence and vulnerability. Another aspect, which is distressing to say the least, is that the leaders of riots are not mohalla boys and goondas but leading politicians, including in a recent case a son of a Minister, who abscond happily after the riots. What one senses here is a preening of Bajrang Dal machismo. They only assure us that the logistics of riots is well-organised. One sees it particularly in the heavy presence of trishuls and swords.

By this time there is little scope for conversation or negotiation and the police realise their cautionary caveats have been thrown to the dogs. The stage is now set for murder and arson and the script becomes almost predictably Pavlovian between an aggressive Bajrang Dal/RSS and vulnerable Muslims, wanting retaliation. It is almost as if riots are the price we pay to keep electoral democracy going. They provide the grease for animosity and keep political suspicion and hate alive.

Disastrous’ handling

When riots have almost become an extension of the discourse on electoral politics, the inevitable litany of mechanical questions follow. The police become the standard target. They seem neither capable of prevention or control, even if they have an acute sense of the possible violence. It is almost as if they have become a passive ineffectual backdrop to the inevitability of riot scenarios. Yet the pressure on them from local politicians must be intense and their efforts to control the route of a riot seem often ineffective. But it is at the political level of leadership that one sees different patterns of disastrous handling. The Chief Ministers of Bengal and Bihar, Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar, had slightly different responses, with Ms. Banerjee banking on threats and then vacillation, and Mr. Kumar greeting it with a strange indifference, conveying a tacit message that his political continuity and stability were more important than the consequences of a riot.

In fact, Ms. Banerjee and Mr. Kumar constitute two separate melodramas of political irresponsibility. Both realised that these were organised riots, but while Mr. Kumar stayed indifferent, Ms. Banerjee was indecisive. Her bluster seems to have had little impact on the BJP as they intruded with their own four-man investigative committee into Asansol. Ms. Banerjee seems caught in a populist quagmire, while Mr. Kumar seems concerned with himself. His handling of the riots has vitiated what little reputation he built as a good administrator. One is not even clear whether his indifference will save him, as a wave of dissatisfaction spreads around him.

Mr. Kumar’s alleged vulnerability in power has created the larger vulnerability of citizens, especially minorities in Bihar. The man who was early on firm on these questions waffles when he encounters them. His hypocrisy is more appalling than Ms. Banerjee’s empty threats and hysteria. Mr. Kumar’s contempt for the electorate demands a deeper analysis. Political irresponsibility tied to weak governance becomes an added incentive for politicians prone to use riots as an act of electoral consolidation.

Riots have become premeditated acts of violence serving as a prelude and a catalyst for India’s electoral machine. In that sense, riots are challenging the very essence of government and politics in Indian democracy. Sadly, most critiques become Cassandra cries in a world which sees violence as an integral part of the electoral ritual. One might suggest that along with majoritarianism of the Modi regime, the cynical structure of riots might make electoral democracy one of the most tragic oxymorons of the time.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

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