The ever-changing meaning of violence

A riot is defined as a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd. The word is understood elsewhere to mean the fury of society against the state. For example, the Paris riot in 1968, which began with student protests against imperialism and capitalism. Or the Los Angeles riot of 1992, following the acquittal of the police officers who assaulted Rodney King. 

In 2011, after the fatal police shooting of a man named Mark Duggan, there were riots in cities across England in which five were killed and 3,000 arrested.

This word does not capture the meaning of a riot as it is understood in India, that of organised violence against citizens by other citizens. During an episode of such violence, the state steps aside and allows, till it naturally cools down, the passion of the majority to reveal itself as arson, rape, loot and murder. Elements of the state often actively participate in the violence, feeling the same strong emotions as the mob it is meant to subdue. 

Even the best governed states do not appear to have the capacity to control the damage and our most competent chief ministers have failed on this count. It is also true that the violence is justified in the minds of many, including those who lead the state.

In an interview with The Indian Express published  on September 16, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was asked: “The Muzaffarnagar riots took place under the last government but of the 44 cases decided, there has been acquittal in 43 cases. Why isn’t your government filing appeals?” 

The chief minister replied: “The charge sheets in the Muzaffarnagar cases were filed by the previous government. The (riots) were the result of biased policies and failure of that government under which the whole society was differentiated on the basis of caste, belief and religion. There is nothing like that in our government. On the question of appeal, we will do that if needed. If there is no need, why should we unnecessarily intervene in the matter of the court?”

The root of such violence is an underlying sentiment existing perennially in a large part of our society, and kept stoked through politics. An external trigger then sets it afire: An assassination in 1984, an act of vandalism in 1992 or an incident on a train in 2002.

illustration: Binay Sinha
The other difference between the riot abroad and the riot here is that of spontaneity. The riots referred to in the instances above were not anticipated. In India, we are aware that the deliberate raising of the temperature will have consequences. 

The Supreme Court has decided to wrap up the case and hand down judgment on the Ayodhya matter before the Chief Justice retires on November 17. It has instructed the parties to finish arguments by October 18. It appears likely we will receive a decision on the case in the next few weeks. 

This decision will come in a period of our history in which the state has actively demonised a minority and punished it. The legislation on meat, the absurd and Kafka-esque (as described by The Economist) events in Assam, the criminalisation of divorce, what we are doing in Srinagar and so on. 

A collection of columns written in Indian newspapers in recent years will read like the diary of Victor Klemperer. He was an academic, a scholar of languages, who kept a record of what was done to him and others in Germany in the 1930s. There is something happening daily. 

And the decision will provide an answer to a question that has not been discussed in politics as a property dispute. It has been projected as vengeance and retribution against a building made five centuries ago — Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in 1526 and died in Agra five years later aged 47 — on the site of another building apparently made earlier. How much earlier?

Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Satyapal Singh, when he was still an Indian Police Service officer, wrote an article (“Proving the historicity of Ram”,, April 14, 2008) in which he said Ram lived 8,69,108 years ago.  

Meaning 500,000 years before the appearance of Homo Sapiens. That is, of course, if one believes in the theory of evolution, which Mr Singh, who headed education in India through his human resources development portfolio in the first Modi government, says he doesn’t.

It will be interesting to see how the world views us as we go about resolving this pressing matter judicially and how we will anticipate and control what will come after the judgment.

If some fear that this will precipitate the sort of disturbances we have seen before then their fear is not unfounded. It is hoped that the state is mindful of potential consequences and doing what it can to mitigate them as the day of judgment approaches.

Lastly, to go back to where we started, a riot in India is what happens when the majority inflicts organised violence on a minority community. When the minority responds, this violence is classified differently in India and given another name.

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