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Engineering Violence

Bhupinder Brar

By Paul Brass
Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2005, pp. xix 184, Rs. 250.00


Paul Brass had already published fifteen books before he came out with this relatively slim volume late last year, most of them on ethnic politics and violence in South Asia, an area of research to which he had devoted almost his entire academic career of well over four decades. Not surprisingly, his reputation as a persistent and prolific writer on the subject was already well established. So was his stature as a perceptive and penetrating scholar, thanks to the depth of his scholarship. So what is new about this volume? An honest answer would be: not a great deal, if we keep in mind the work he had produced particularly in the previous ten or fifteen years. These years had seen an increasing shift in his attitude as a scholar, a shift that is best described in his own words: ‘Those who are familiar with my previous work know that I do not take a detached stance in my writings on the subject of collective violence. I strive for social science objectivity, but I do not hide my passion or anger.’   The present volume carries that shift further, for this time the passion comes through even more clearly. Revolting against the ‘misguided efforts’ of what he calls ‘pseudo-science’, Brass now provokes the reader to think not as a social scientist but as a concerned citizen. The size and the format make the book more accessible to such a non-specialist reader. Brass is angry at mainstream social science literature on collective violence. This literature, he believes, has the tendency to turn overly psychologistic. There is an urge to find the ‘causes’ of violence in ‘crowd psychology, spontaneous popular anger over grievances…rumours, ancient hatreds’ and so on. The truth, Brass believes, is a lot straighter, and far more brutal. Collective violence, he argues, is not spontaneously caused or triggered; it is deliberately and coldbloodedly planned and engineered: ‘specific persons and groups actually work out plans of action, strategies and tactics, recruit rioters and select targets to attack’. Brass calls such networks ‘institutionalised riot system’ (or IRS, in short) which, once developed, could stay dormant for as long as convenient, quietly and unsuspectingly performing rehearsals, until they are unleashed for calculations which are mostly electoral but could often be coupled with those of real estate, business and wealth.   By failing to focus on this sinister aspect of collective violence, mainstream literature ends ...

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