Updated: January 12, 2010 17:13 IST

The anatomy of communal riots

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If history repeats itself endlessly anywhere, every time as a shameful tragedy, it is in India with its interminably recurring "communal riots." The history of independent India started off with bloody conflicts bearing this description, and the six decades and more that have passed by witnessed hundreds of such episodes.

What are the factors and forces behind this phenomenon, which shows no sign of fading away? Is there a way to fight these fires which find us unprepared despite their frequency? Many pundits have attempted an answer to these questions. Deserving of note is the somewhat different response Prateep K. Lahiri has provided in this book.


Decoding Intolerance is different because it is more a product of experience than of mere erudition. An officer of the Indian Administrative Service in the Madhya Pradesh cadre, the author had an encounter with communal riot at the start of his career — in Jabalpur (1961). He went on to witness and work on similar law-and-order problems of a socially lacerating kind. As Harsh Mander, a former IAS officer who took on communal fascism after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, says, Lahiri’s volume has the value of the views of “a capable, and fair ‘insider’...who has handled...communal riots as a civil servant.”

Lahiri begins by asking, as he should, what this “communalism” is. Elsewhere, the term generally has a positive, communitarian import and is sometimes understood as allegiance to an ethnic group. But, in India, it has a different connotation, which had its origin in the colonial regime and came into vogue in the aftermath of the ‘communal award’ (announced in 1932) granting separate electorates to minority religious communities. A divisive politics and ideology spoken in the name of the majority religious community — the most dangerous consequence of the divide-and-rule policy of the British masters — has come to be seen as the primary meaning of “communalism” in India’s political lexicon. Telling indeed is the observation (quoted by the author) the war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made at a meeting of his Cabinet in February 1940: “...he did not share the anxiety to encourage...unity between the Hindu and Muslim communities...He regarded the Hindu-Muslim feud as the bulwark of British rule in India.” This policy had the practical support of political forces that saw the “feud” as their path to power in post-Independence India. Lahiri cites approvingly historian Bipan Chandra’s definition of communalism as “the belief that because a group of people follow a particular religion they have… common social, political and economic interests.” The far-right politics seeking to propagate this belief, it follows, aims to make the people forget their more concrete, class interests and fight among themselves instead of their real, common enemy.


More importantly, the author discusses the methods by which the far-right has sought to build an unlovable image of India’s largest minority among the majority community. Particularly notable is the way he pulverises the far-right platform on the question of uniform civil code. He demonstrates how unacceptable the demand can be even to large sections of the diversified majority society, though he does recognise the unhelpful role of the unreformed Muslim clerics. Effectively exposed, too, is the alarmist propaganda that the growing minority population poses a ‘demographic danger.’ The same point can be made about the invidious attempt to make a bugbear of the Bangladeshi “infiltrator.”

Lahiri records, and draws lessons from, four major riots besides the Jabalpur incident. He notes that, of these conflagrations (in Indore, Bhagalpur, Mumbai, and Gujarat in 1969, 1989, 1992-93, and 2002 respectively), the last three were sparked off by the Ayodhya movement, of which its destructive “architects” claim to be proud even today. In the concluding chapter, taking a “non-astrological peep into the future,” he hopes that a “double-digit [economic] growth” can mean the gradual decline of communal politics. It is hard to share his optimism readily after the horrors witnessed in a relatively developed Gujarat. There are few alternatives to a frontal attack on the far-right and its communalist plank in the foreseeable future.

The volume is different because it is more a product of experience than of mere erudition.

DECODING INTOLERANCE — Riots and the Emergence of Terrorism in India: Prateep K. Lahiri; Lotus Collection, Roli Books, M-75, G. K. II Market, New Delhi-110048. Rs. 395.

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