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Religion and Riots

Denys P. Leighton

Edited by Ian Talbot
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xvii 191, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Seven of the nine contributions to this collection of essays were presented as papers at a workshop held in Oxford in 2004, sponsored by the Coventry University South Asian Studies Centre and Balliol College, University of Oxford. Editor Ian Talbot, formerly director of the Coventry South Asian Studies Centre and presently Professor in the University of Southampton, offers a summation of the contributors’ findings that can scarcely surprise any honest person observing conditions of communal violence in contemporary India and Pakistan. He remarks first that ‘extended violent outbreaks’ in which communal identities are brought to the fore ‘usually occur with the acquiescence, if not the actual participation, of civil administration’; second, he claims that such outbreaks are rarely ‘spontaneous’ but instead are ‘carefully planned and orchestrated and occur within a context of political mobilisation’ (Preface). As Talbot argues in his own essay, if, as some scholars contend, most instances of communal violence in the subcontinent have been spontaneous, passionate and improvised, then each is unique and there would be little ground for comparative analysis. None of the contributors to this volume gets bogged down in the question of the historical origins of communal political mobilization in India, and none is so bold as to lay blame for communal violence after 1947 on the British. Nevertheless, many of the essays include substantial analyses of preconditions of outbreaks of communal violence in various Indian states and cities since partition.   The first seven essays illustrate patterns of provocation and mobilization producing communal violence, taking us from Punjab and the United Provinces in 1947, to Meerut in 1961 and 1982, to the Delhi anti-Sikh riots of 1984, to the ‘Gujarat Carnage’ of 2002 about which Asghar Ali Engineer (one of the contributors here) has written and spoken eloquently. Talbot’s essay surveys communal violence in Punjab between March and August 1947, showing how carefully orchestrated was much of the violence and how decisive was the communal bias of local leaders and police officers. Paul Brass attempts to expose the mechanisms of the ‘institutionalized riot system’, taking here Meerut as a case study. Indeed, most of the contributors to this volume take as their primary reference points Brass’s studies Riots and Pogroms and The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, in addition to the work of Ashutosh Varshney (e.g., Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India), Steven Wilkinson (Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Violence in ...

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