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Why communal sentiments lead to violence

The trigger that translates communal sentiments into violence is provided by political elements who provide deadly weapons and inflammatory slogans to crowds, design deviations in routes of processions and mark out shops, factories and households run or inhabited by the other community as ready for annihilation. A religious festival turns into a political rally and descends into a spectacle of mass violence. Violent crowds know that the political party will grant them immunity.

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Neera Chandhoke
Political scientist

On Ram Navami, a day when Hindus worship Lord Ram, who spent his life fulfilling obligations first as a son and then as a ruler even at the cost of his personal happiness, we saw shocking scenes of a saffron-clad mob surrounding mosques and shouting ugly, violent slogans to target our fellow citizens, the Muslims. We saw men jumping up and down in frenzy, as if a spurt of madness had overtaken them; almost as if they had consumed bhang.

And we wondered: what is it about Lord Ram that sparks off such irrational passions? Such scenes are not new to Indian politics. Religious processions and crowds that affirm group identity, and tie it to a narrow chauvinistic notion of the nation, have targeted the ‘enemy’ since the turn of the 20th century. For, religious rituals moved from the private to the public realm and politicised religion became a marker of the nation. This was politics; it had nothing to do with religion as a faith.

It was on March 28, 2018, that an extremist Hindu group had taken out a procession on Ram Navami in Bihar Sharif in Bihar. Even as the number of participants swelled and even as they began to brandish weapons and shout obscenities against minorities, leaders had diverted the route of the procession and entered a Muslim neighbourhood. The outcome was communal violence. On the same day, four persons had died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the Raniganj-Asansol belt of Paschim Bardhaman district, West Bengal. Casualties would have been higher except for the wisdom of the imam of a mosque in Asansol. He had lost his young son in the clashes, but still, he warned that if anyone from his community retaliated in kind, he would leave town. We doff our metaphorical hat to the imam. In Rajasthan, on the same occasion, a religious procession had included a float glorifying Shambhu Lal Raigar, currently in prison for hacking an innocent Muslim to death and cynically videotaping his death to the tune of his own anti-Muslim slogans. After the festival, communal tension had spread to more districts of the state.

Psychiatrist Sudhir Kakar, in his The Colours of Violence, writes that among the various incidents that precipitate communal riots, two occur with regularity: rumours of killings of cows and religious processions. A procession, argues Kakar, is necessary for the creation of a physical group that is represented in the bodies of its members rather than in their minds. This shift from individual minds to a collective body is essential for the group to become an instrument of actual violence.

Elias Canetti, focusing on destructive collective behaviour during the 1789 French Revolution in his Crowds and Power, has made the same argument. The experience of being a part of a crowd transgresses generally established and universally valid distances and boundaries.

When an individual becomes a part of a crowd, determined to humiliate and coerce another group, something strange happens. He forswears his individuality and judgment. He has no problem in touching or being touched by strangers in an India where caste rules the rituals of touching. For, as Kakar suggests, being in a crowd dissolves the boundaries between our self and other corporeal selves. The result is mass violence.

There might have been a political moment when we thought that riots constitute episodic and spasmodic events. The breakdown in social codes cannot be permanent; they are restored when normalcy returns to the body politic. Riots have a short time span, and when the psychic high generated during the course of the riot is spent, people return to coexisting with each other and boundaries are restored to their rightful place. Riots, we could have said at one point in our history, take place in a no-man’s land where neither the past nor the future is of any import.

Now we know that communal violence is an intentional event, preceded by vicious speeches of leaders and their followers. Investigations of communal riots tell us that a tangible link can be established between slogan-mongering, affirmations of the collective self and accusations against other communities and the outbreak of violence.

The trigger that translates communal sentiments into violence is provided by political elements who provide deadly weapons and inflammatory slogans to crowds, design deviations in routes of processions and mark out shops, factories and households run or inhabited by the other community as ready for annihilation. A religious festival turns into a political rally and descends into a spectacle of mass violence.

This can happen only if the administration and the police do little to prevent violence. It has by now been established by studies that communal riots happen only when the government allows them to happen. Violent crowds know that the political party, or at least powerful individuals within the party that is in power, will grant them immunity. The police stand around watching.

This is nothing short of tragic because communal violence addresses the core question: who will control society and the state? Purveyors of violence want to redraw the normative map drafted by the Indian Constitution: that of freedom and equality. This is what rabble rousers do.

What can we citizens, who have been reduced to an audience, do? Jigar Moradabadi had indicted political merchants of violence thus: 'Unka jo kaam hai, who ahl-e-siyaasat jaanein/mera paigam mohabbat hai, jahaan tak pahunche.' Can this be the answer to violence? Or has violence acquired autonomy from humanity?

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