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Published in the 16-31 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review


Communal violence is the bane of Indian society. It is a most superficial manifestation of the communalism prevalent in India. In a way this politics and the violence began during the colonial period and the British policy of divide and rule had a great role to play in this phenomenon coming up in the society. The violence has been preceded by the Hate propaganda which the communal organizations spread against other communities. Muslim League spread venom against Hindus and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS spread the same against Muslims in particular and lately against Christians also in a big way.

With India adopting a secular constitution, the stench of communal violence, which was worst in the post partition riots, was supposed to die down. As a matter of fact the decade of fifties witnessed and era of peaceand calm, though the undercurrents of hate ideology continued even during this period. Jabalpur riot of 1961 reminded the Nation that communal ideology is not dead. And since then it kept visiting this or that part of the country at frequent intervals. It was like a saturated solution, solution of communal hate in an ever ready society and any crystal, which is minor or major, can spark the process with great amount of ease. And an atmosphere, which looks calm for the time being, turns into a scene, which should not be part of civilized society.

The progressive movement and intellectuals took this issue very lightly. Along with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru most of them believed that it is a passing phenomenon and with the rise of industrialization it will die its death. And that is the reason why the documentation of these is not as meticulous as it should be. It is to the credit of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, who as a lone ranger took up the investigation of riots with a single minded sincerity. He began the investigations, study and analyses of riots in right earnest. This area became one amongst many of Engineers contributions to the society, its thought and progressive intervention. After the Babri demolition and the post demolition riots he went to lay the foundation of Center for Study of Society (CSSS) and secularism, totally devoted to the issue of communalism. And documentation and investigation of riots became the central theme of this center. The present study is the outcome of the painstaking documentation work done by the center. It is a pity that the book which aims to present a view of communal riots has to base itself on the newspaper reporting as the major source. But that reflects more on the available sources and lack of transparency of the agencies involved rather than the authors planning. The raw meticulous data is not available in a comprehensive way, so the fall back on the available newspaper reporting.

Engineer does well to take a birds eye view of the riots and try to correlate the changing social scene with the decadal change and the causes of riots. With his vast experience in this area he classifies them broadly as per the decades. The decade of sixties see the riots in Jabalpur, sparked by the elopement of a Hindu girl with a Muslim boy. Incidentally the parents of both happened to be Bidi (Leaf Cigarette) merchants and also rivals in a sense. Two other factors provoked riots during this phase. In Eastern India, in Jamshedpur, Rourkela and Ranchi, most of these were sparked by the tales of refugees coming from East Pakistan. In Gujarat, Ahmadabad the riots were engineered due to opposition to the policies of Indira Gandhi, Bank Nationalization and abolition of privy purses, to which Morarji Desai the strongman from Gujarat was opposed. He was subtly supported by the Bharatiya Jansangh, the previous avatar of BJP, and the then right wing party, Swatantra party. At the same time riot was sparked in Bhivandi due to a provocative speech by Balasaheb Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief. Late seventies riots in Jamshedpur, Aligarh and Benaras were mainly due to instigation from RSS, which wanted to assert its presence during the dual membership issue. In Moradabad riot the business rivalry was one of the major factors.

The decade of eighties has been the worst in the period of Indian republic as far as communal riots go. During this phase, one can also witness the rising communalization of society. The next phase is also the one, which begins with the demolition of Babri Masjid and during this phase the political ambitions of Shiv Sena in Mumbai and machinations of BJP in Gujarat are the reasons.

Since the formation of CSSS a meticulous documentation has been done. The home ministry data could not be accessed as it is treated as confidential. Engineer makes an interesting point. The riots, which are spontaneous and un-planned come under control very fast. While those simmering for longer duration are the ones where the political forces are operating from behind the scene. Another interesting point on these lines, is made by Vibhuti Narain Rai, a top police official who has done good analysis of riots from authentic sources. Rai points out that no riot can sustain beyond forty-eight hours, if the authorities decide to control it. Laloo Yadavs policies in a way concretely demonstrated the absence of communal violence in Bihar and the CPMs policies in West Bengal to some extent demonstrate the similar point. On the point that communal violence is an urban phenomenon, Engineer concludes that communal riots erupt more often in medium and small towns, though Mumbai may be an exception in this. Also places like Ahmadabad and Surat have become a sort of permanent foci of the communal violence. Also villages are no more immune from the communal poison. Being a pioneer of riot investigation, he provides an excellent commentary, dealing with the dynamics of riots.

The book has a detailed break up of the riots from 1950 till 2002. It also gives the valuable year wise break up of the data, religion wise deaths, arrests etc. These clearly show the trends and biases of the state machinery as well. The book while strong on data is not as strong on the deeper analysis. The rise of communalism and role of hate propaganda could have been highlighted better. Despite these flaws it is a valuable addition to the study of communal violence in India. The book leaves one wondering as to what is confidential in the data of communal violence? Dr. Engineer would have done well to give the detailed analysis of some riots demonstrating their mechanics. A brief glimpse of the inquiry commissions, which have studied these riots and their major findings would have increased the worth of this contribution.

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