Riots As Directed Performances


The lack of convergence between theory and praxis has always been the subject of critique. Researchers have always rued the implicit power dynamic constituting observation and analysis, in which the scholar scrutinises and evaluates action to determine cause and effect relationships. The observed entity, that is human subjects in case of social science research, comes under the lens of critique to predict behavioural associations or find patterns of interaction. The distance of the researcher from the subject of research is a cause for concern because the researcher may be unable to incorporate the essential nuances of ground realities that may be the central (or peripheral) determinants of action/events/interaction and so on. On the other hand, if experiential knowledge is to be considered an important source of understanding, bridging the gap between theorisation and implementation is equally difficult. The knowledge drawn from immediate experiences is often retrospective, which means that memory plays an important role in its perception. When memory comes into the picture, the validity of that narrative comes under the scanner because memory is an unreliable entity. For example, if a study on communal riots is to be proposed and collecting the stories of riot victims is to be the foundation of its argument, then talking to victims of violence can yield unexpected results. The trauma or pain of loss and suffering may interrupt their stories so powerfully, that their accounts may vary over time and context.

In works like ‘The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India’, Paul Brass criticizes many prevailing ideas about riot-formation and sets out the basic processes and principles of riots in India. He claims that riots are endemic to India, help political organisations, and persist in the Indian political system because they are functional for our power politics. He highlights broad economic and inter-community factors as primary causes of riots, while simultaneously saying that riots can have variable multiple causes, classifying which as strict categories is almost impossible. Through three processes, that is, the historicization of riots, memorialization and demonization, centuries of conflicting histories and memories secure the basis of tensions in the country. However, what I find most interesting about his theory of communal violence in India is the section of ‘Dynamism of Riot Production’ which appears to construct communal violence as a structured organised system, rather than sporadic spontaneous outbursts. It proposes that riot production can be enacted like a dramatic performance after years of systematic practice, or the rehearsal stage. Training to manufacture and use weapons, fuel divisive political relations, highlight different ways of existence (even when inter-faith harmony and syncretism persist in those regions), and spark fear in communities about perceived dangers to their identities etc. makes this a routine, endemic act. This ensures that the final performance, the activation stage, is flawless. In the interpretation stage, those in power define the violence as per their allegiance by calling it ‘rioting’ irrespective of whether it may be a pogrom, massacre or disturbance. This stage also includes the role of the police (to conveniently delay investigation and controlled order), and the fourth estate, the media (spearheading a certain narrative).

Notwithstanding the black humour of this theory in which human life is sacrificed at the altar of bloodshed and vengeance almost as if actors in a play are faking reality, its constructed nature is valid in some ways and disputable in others. The fact that religious and political organisations do train members in perpetrating violence by feeding them propaganda about a particular ideology and sinking into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ formation in the name of ‘self-defence’, has been observed. Organised ranks of believers (called militants, terrorists or variably nationalists by the state, depending on who is in power) epitomize the danger to peaceful coexistence and security. However, the element of anonymity rioting mobs offer means that all riots are not fully controlled. Many people do join riots spontaneously, the state may intervene due to specific pressures, media reporting can combat forceful creation of biased narratives, and the directors of the ‘show’ may see the situation going out of hand. The rioting mob is a growing, seething juggernaut relying on virulent hatred, absence of rational alternative thought, blind fury, and no remorse. The power of the people has never been put to worse use.

The major discontentment I have with respect to his pattern of action is his distance from the field. At the same time, being closely associated with the ground can make the theorist inadvertently or deliberately biased. Which is the lesser evil?

– Contributed by Tript

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