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Riots Do Not Happen Accidentally


Dipankar Gupta

VOTES AND VIOLENCE: ELECTORAL COMPETITION AND COMMUNAL RIOTS IN INDIA
By Steven I. Wilkinson
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. xiii 293, Rs. 375.00

RELIGIOUS POLITICS AND COMMUNAL VIOLENCE
Edited by Steven I. Wilkinson
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. viii 446, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 6 June 2006

Steven Wilkinson’s erudition and expertise on the subject of communal and ethnic violence are truly admirable. His style and tone are almost self-effacing but he knows how to make a point and he makes them with emphasis and judgment. He first offers his readers a very charitable exposition of alternate points of view and then systematically rubbishes them, somewhat heartlessly, by marshalling a whole set of facts and figures which his opponents must wish they had known of earlier. And all through this demolition job he continues to remain very, very polite!   His position is very clear, and once made it demonstrates the futility of social science in studying ethnic and sectarian riots. But someone needs to make this point, and Wilkinson does it exceedingly well. His argument is not altogether novel but he makes it stand up in a very persuasive fashion. Simply put, Wilkinson holds that riots do not happen on their own no matter how riot prone an area might appear to be. For a riot to actually take place it needs the active support of those who are supposed to be in charge of the law enforcement machinery. By the same token, the heavy hand of the law can also stop a riot in its tracks even after it has been around for a period of time. Clearly, there is little need for social science: it is all about who did what to whom for how much? The “why” of a riot is clear in all such cases. The overwhelming reason in every instance is to win votes in the next election by demonizing the hated “other”.   This has often been portrayed as a species of conspiracy theory of ethnicity/communalism in order to give this point of view a bad name. It only needs the very naïve or the overly ambitious academic who wants to make a living off the misery of others to hold forth the view that riots have structural compulsions behind them and that it requires close social scientific studies to figure out how certain communities were motivated and why they chose to kill. The truth is that all riots are sponsored by conspiracies and by instrumentalism of the grossest kind, and to get a measure of this one has to see a riot first hand or read between the lines of reports to get at the true picture.   This ...


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