Cultural Studies Essays - Communal Violence

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Communal Violence in Gujarat Perspectives on the Causative Factors

The present paper focuses on the communal riots occurred in the recent past in the state of Gujarat in India. This was one of the worst communal riots occurred in the post-Independence period that resulted in the massacre of thousands of innocent people in this state. Therefore it can be considered as one of the black marks in the socio-political sphere in our country, with a long tradition of religious tolerance.

The communal carnage in Gujarat led many to re-examine the existing explanations of the various causative factors of religious conflagrations. According to Ahmad, Hindu-Muslim violence needs to be viewed as an extension of general social conflict which includes inter as well as intra communal riots, caste violence and other forms of sectional upheavals. The emphasis placed on Hindu Muslim conflict in case of communal violence comes but naturally considering the huge impact the various riots between the two communities have had on Indian polity and society. He views Hindu Muslim riots as prismatic manifestations of numerous factors, historical and political.

Factors contributing communal conflict

Varshney (2002) argues that the conflict between Hindus and Muslims is the terrible outcome of the absence of civic ties across communities. He classifies certain cities as ‘riot-prone’ after a careful observation of the frequency of the occurrence of such violence. He also asserts that Hindu- Muslim conflict is particularly an urban phenomenon and is concentrated in certain states and cities. For instance, the analysis of Ahamadabad as a textile city where violence escalated after the closure of mills which often degenerated into communal violence delineates the factors that have contributed to the city coming to be known as ‘riot-prone’.

Jayasree.G, Research Scholar, Department of Sociology, University of Kerala Thiruvananthapuram

Wilkinson (2002) deconstructs the state complicity by delineating a wider shift in Indian politics. The state government’s delay in calling in the army established beyond doubt that the anti-minority pogrom was being carried out with the involvement of not only the politicians but the state machinery as well. As in most riots in the country before and after Independence, minorities suffered disproportionately in Gujarat. He argues that ethnic riots are far from being spontaneous eruptions for a clear electoral purpose. Subsequently, it then follows these very political agenda. Instrumental political explanations for violence have been labeled ‘unsatisfactory’ not only by Wilkinson but also by other theorists. The second major problem identified by Wilkinson, with many political explanations for ethnic violence is that they fail to account for the variation in patterns of violence within states. In order to clear any confusion arising out of the critics made against the existing theories, Wilkinson posits three possible explanations for the differences in state performance. First, decades of corruption, criminalization, politicization and a general lack of state capacity have left Indian state governments too weak to prevent riots. Second, Indian state governments are unable or unwilling to protect minorities because they systematically under-represent them within their governments, police forces and local administration. Lastly and most importantly, the degree of party competition affects the value governments place on attracting ‘Muslim swing voters’, which effects whether or not the government will order the respective administrations to protect the minorities. He focuses on state and town level electoral incentives which remain important even if we assume various other factors, socio-economic and otherwise to be constant and controlled. Wilkinson argues that to win an election it is not necessary to appeal to each and every voter but to the voters who fear the consequences of not taking a defensive stand against the members of the other community.

Three kinds of situations may develop which prove that as electoral competition increases, the level of riots goes down. First, the existence of three or more parties provides a security blanket to the minorities as the importance of swing votes increases provided the majorty party is not trying to attract the fringe Hindu votes. A bi-polar state party system creates a potentially dangerous situation for the minorities, especially when the majoritarian party, which owns the anti-minority issues, tries to foment violence. The third situation can be exemplified by Gujarat and the events that unfolded in that state in the year 2002. The number of elections that are preceded by communal killings has taken an upswing over the years, especially since the Hindu nationalist BJP gained political prominence.

Varshney (2002) in his work on ethnic violence in which he almost absolves politicians, the strategic roles played by them in fomenting violence and Sangh Parivar that has been associated with most post- Independence Hindu-Muslim conflict by stressing on the existence or absence of civic ties between members of the two communities as the major factor that either leads to violence or to peace. Electoral incentives are the prime movers of an ethnic riot. Wilkinson, however, further investigates the reaction of a state government and its administrative machinery to communal violence, whether in controlling the conflagration or letting the fires burn. The two major indices that are used for this purpose are state autonomy and state capacity. State autonomy signifies the power of the administration to take independent action. State capacity includes the fiscal disposition, judicial capacity and rate of transfers within the state.

Wilkinson’s (2002) central argument is that state weakness does not account for state level differences in the level of Hindu-Muslim violence. He finds that the relationship between state autonomy (the lack of political interference or otherwise) and state capacity inversely proportional to variations in occurrence of Hindu-Muslim riots. States that are said to be the lowest on the powers of autonomy and capacity barometer have done remarkably well to prevent riots. Even the weakest state governments, like Bihar and UP, still seem to possess the minimal state capacity necessary to prevent Hindu-Muslim riots if this is prioritized by the state’s political leaders. The mere fact that there are sharp state level variations in the occurrence as well as in the prevention and control of riots suggest that the problem is not so much state capacity as the instructions given by politicians to state officials telling them whether to protect or not to protect minorities. Certain specific aspects however are linked to state capacity and poor performance in preventing riots. The financial weakness of some state governments can be a cause for concern. The Gujarat state Government was hardly cash-strapped when the pogrom took place in the state. Secondly, the police and judicial systems in many states are understaffed and overloaded, which reduces the perceived risk rioters face of arrest, prosecution and conviction. Punitive transfers also have an independent negative effect on riot preparedness, because frequent transfers reduce officers’ knowledge about their districts, the potential trouble spots and the one best way to prevent a riot.

Political interference with state autonomy is alleged to increase Hindu-Muslim violence in different ways, instructions from the political bosses to either drop or go slow in investigating cases of mob brutality and murder by certain influential members of the citizenry or political retribution that they delay in taking stern action especially against groups that enjoy state protection. Obviously enough the central thrust of the work done by Steven Wilkinson traces the linkages between party competition and ethnic violence but at the same time he finds that high levels of electoral competition can reduce as well as precipitate ethnic violence.

The existence or otherwise of civic ties between Hindus and Muslims at the town level is the primary cause of conflict or the lack of it between the two is the central assertion made by Varshney in his recent work on the subject. Where such networks of civic engagement exist, tensions and conflicts are regulated and managed; where they are missing, communal identities lead to endemic and ghastly violence.

These networks can be broken down into: associational forms of engagement and everyday forms of engagement. Both forms of civic engagement, if inter-communal, promote peace. The capacity, however, of the associational forms to withstand national level exogenous shocks is substantially higher. Varshney argues that associational forms turn out to be sturdier in the face of politicians trying to foment communal trouble. Vigorous associational life acts as a serious constraint on the polarizing strategies of political elites. The mechanisms that connect civil society and ethnic conflict can be broadly classified into two categories. By promoting communication between members of different religious communities, civic networks often make neighbourhood peace possible. People come together routinely to form temporary organizations in the face of tensions. These can be highly effective, and are known as peace committees.

The second mechanism describes why associational forms of engagement are sturdier than everyday forms in dealing with ethnic and communal tensions. Vibrant organizations serving communities can promote communal peace, which can be solidly expressed. Everyday engagements are more in the village level in India that associational forms of engagement are few and far between. Yet rural India has experienced fewer riots since Independence. In contrast even though associational life flourished in the cities, even petty rumors can cause deadly bouts of communal violence.

According to Varshney, Hindu-Muslim violence is primarily an urban phenomenon. The violence in Gujarat can be termed unique in several ways including the occurrence of large-scale communal violence in the rural areas. India’s Hindu-Muslim violence is city specific. State and national level politics provides the context within which the local mechanism linked with violence is activated. Cities are also the sites for large-scale civic engagement, which constrains local politicians in their strategic behavior.

These riot prone cities lack such forms of engagement that leads to the political elites taking advantage of the volatility of the situation. In peaceful cities, an institutionalized peace system exists, where organizations are communally integrated. These civic organizations, for all practical purposes become the ears and arms of the local administration.

Varsheny states that a multiethnic society with few interconnections across ethnic boundaries is very vulnerable to ethnic disorders and violence. In Hyderabad city, for instance, most Hindus and Muslims do not meet in a civic setting where mutual relations can be formed. Lacking these networks, even competent police officers and administrators; watch helplessly the unfolding of a riot. The emphasis on civic engagement as the mechanism that either foments or controls communal violence tends to displace focus from the role played by the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar in engineering riots and pogroms since independence.

Prof. Brass (2003) used the term ‘ethnic earthquake’ for analyzing communal violence. According to him communal riots are organized and produced by a network of known persons in the city or town,. Most of these known persons are members of the Sangh Parivar who are devoted to the cult of violence for the protection of Hinduism, Despite the fact that there are ‘waves’ or ‘chains’ in the occurrence patterns of communal rioting , there has been no notable period when such violence has been absent. Brass develops and demonstrates the argument as to why communal tensions are maintained, accompanied from time to time by lethal rioting, and how it is essential for the organizations and individuals. Thus communal riots are endemic in India.

While investigating the spatial variation in incidence of Hindu-Muslim riots, Brass classifies the various issues in categories of persistence, differential incidence/timing, classification/meaning and power. The struggle over meaning of explanations and power relations requires attention to a communal discourse that has entrenched itself rather deep in the body politics. This discourse, fiercely Hindu nationalistic, has been successful in corrupting history as well as memory. He identifies three elements inherent in the spread of this hegemonic communal discourse.

Historization leads to the distortion of history and the division of history into the periods where Muslims are seen as conquerors. The fundamental antagonism is over- emphasized. The aspect of memorialisation includes greater attention given to the dead heroes of one particular faith. The dramatizing and exaggerating nuances used to glorify what the Sangh Parivar calls ‘the struggle for the birthplace of Lord Rama’ is essential memorialization.

Evidences exist to who that memorialization leads to demonization of the ‘other’. The Muslims, the ‘others’ in the Indian case, are portrayed in literature, cinema and other forms of human expression as ‘racially different inferior beings who invaded our country and cultural space’. Myths, lending credence to this process of demonization,are taken resources to in the form of the spoken word as well as the written letter. Another feature of the communal discourse is ‘body symbolism’. Muslim rule is portrayed as ‘slavery’ of the partition in visceral terms ie tearing apart of the Hindu body. The Muslims thus are dangerous to the Hindu body and need to be removed before the danger can actually present itself. This explains why most post-independence riots have been outright pogroms against the Muslims.

Prof. Brass delineates three phases in the production process of riots. He compares a riot to a ‘staged drama’. Dipankar Gupta uses the term picnic rioting to describe the manner in which Hindu mobs actually celebrate the killing of Muslims. The Gujarat riots exemplified the herding of saffron clad mobs into trucks and the subsequent journey into specially marked colonies of Muslim concentration. The first phase therefore, is one of preparation (rehearsal) in which tensions are kept alive. Killing of a cow and the kidnap of a Hindu girl are the common methods. The following phase is one of the activation (enactment). The political circumstance must be right for a riot to be precipitated. An election could be such an occasion. The last phase of riot production is explanation or interpretation where blame displacement comes into play. Prof.Brass further argues that there exists a division of labour in the production of riots. Riot systems are institutionalized. Specific roles are assigned to persons like that of scouts or informants, rumor-mongers and propagandists.

Imtiaz Ahmad examined communalism in a sociological framework. He propounded socio- economic theories for communal conflict, views Hindu-Muslim conflict as an extension of the wider social conflict that includes inter as well as intra communal riots, caste violence and other forms of sectional upheavals. The emphasis placed on Hindu-Muslim conflict in the case of social and communal violence comes but naturally considering the huge impact the various riots between the two communities have had on the Indian polity and society. Ahmad argues that economic prosperity of the Muslims is a factor that precipitates endemic anger on the part of the Hindus who fear being swamped, both socially and economically by the nouveau riche Muslims. This antagonism results in riots, which spreads to other parts of the state. An argument that has advanced by numerous scholars following Ahmad, the above brings to the social contradictions that have given rise to many communal conflagrations in the past and are likely to do so in future.


The ghosts of Gujarat cannot be invoked here as the violence there was ‘produced’ by the government of the day. The tensions that prevail, in the rural plains of the north- western state, are somewhat akin to the argument made by Prof. Ahmad. Frequent riots in the diamond city of Surat prove his point beyond any doubt. The democratic process therefore, is responsible for communal conflict and the lack of it. According to the scholars democracy and electoral system played an important role for the emergence of communalism. The kind of electoral system that gets institutionalized over time determines the frequency of communal riots.


  • 1) Brass Paul. 2003. The production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. Washington D C: University of Washington Press.
  • 2) Jaffrelot Christopher. 2001. The Politics of Processions and Hindu-Muslim Riots, in Atul Kohil and Amrita Basu (ed.) Community Conflicts in India. New Delhi: Sage
  • 3) Varshney Ashuthosh. 2002. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India Yale: Yale University Press.
  • 4) Wilkinson Steven. 2002. Putting Gujarat in Perspective. EPW Vol. XXXVII, No.5