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A Structured Web

Harish Khare

By Paul Brass
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 476, Rs. 495.00


Paul Brass stands next only to the late Myron Weiner and the Rudolphs (Lloyd and Susan) in the pantheon of American political scientists who have made it their lifelong business to understand Indian democracy. And this book is arguably his best work, reflecting a richness of insight, honed over a four-decade affair with Indian politics and its baffling complexities. Brass  undertakes to demystify one of the most persisting phenomenon of modern India: the recurring  Hindu-Muslim violence. In this work, Brass looks at the Hindu-Muslim violence, in all its different manifestations, in the city of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, mostly in the post-Independence era. He has been at it for over thirty-eight years, he says, since his first visit to  Aligarh in 1961-62. As the home to the Aligarh Muslim University, the intellectual cradle to the movement for Pakistan, Aligarh became the natural site of Hindu-Muslim tensions, especially after 1947. Displaying an overwhelming familiarity with the mohallas (neighbourhoods in the walled city), castes, professions, personalities, police officers, political leaders, parties, Brass is able to give the reader a flavour of the tensions, political and communal, in Aligarh, without losing sight of the larger context of the demise of the Congress and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party/ the Samajwadi party.      With admirable attention to facts and with the gift of a story-teller, he challenges the comforting but essentially deluding assumption that riots are unplanned, uncalibrated and spontaneous business; he also debunks the “economic reasons” argument behind the riots; instead, he lays bare the essentials of what he calls an “institutionalized system of riot production.” In this politically-useful structured web of tensions and violence, almost all political parties and administrative functionaries seem content to play their assigned role. This system works at many levels, “from the high level of the communal discourse to the lowest level of the criminals deliberately recruited and paid to kill.”  Brass argues that search for a “true” cause for riots is misdirected and this search distracts us from the need to understand the “dynamics” of riots.      As he sees it, this dynamics has to be understood in terms of “..a perpetually operative network of roles whose functions are to maintain communal hostilities, recruit persons to protest against or otherwise make public or bring to the notice of the authorities incidents presumed dangerous to the peace of the city, mobilize crowds to threaten or intimidate persons from the ...

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