An Account Of Communal Mobilisation

A Discourse on ‘Riot Politics’ in Gujarat

Arup Kumar Sen

Gujarat has played a leading role in initiating a new paradigm of anti-Muslim Hindu majoritarian politics in neoliberal India. A recent book, Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State, authored by Ward Berenschot (C Hurst & Co, London, 2011; Indian Edition, Rupa, New Delhi, 2013), has offered an ethnographic reading of the genealogy of ‘Riot Politics’ in the context of Gujarat.

Berenschot has located the birth of anti-Muslim violent Hindutva politics in Gujarat in the perspective of the decline of the ‘Congress System’. He observed: “Up until the late 1960s the Congress party controlled the main structures that mediated between state institutions and citizens…The patronage channels around Congress and the TLA (Textile Labour Association) gradually began to change in the 1960s and 1970s.” (pp. 63-64). He noted in this context that the Gandhian trade union, TLA, had over 100,000 members in the 1960s, and it was a major player in Gujarat politics (p. 59). He argued that the “TLA’s accommodating stance vis-à-vis the mill owners did not, however, lead to lasting support among the workers for more radical trade unions. Some alternative trade unions were set up,but they never managed to gain a foothold in Gujarat.” (p.63).

The author has situated the decline of the TLA in the perspective of the gradual collapse of the textile industry in Gujarat and rise of footloose labour in the State: “From the late 1970s fifty-two of Ahmedabad’s sixty textile mills closed down… By the end of the 1990s only eight mills were still operational, employing around 25,000 people. As a result, the economic prospects of the poorest sections of society deteriorated. The available jobs for these workers have increasingly been informalised; those who lost their regular jobs at the textile mills had to settle for lower daily-wage jobs that are, generally, un-registered and unregulated. (p. 66)

In fact, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva outfits are organically connected both with the decline of the Congress and birth of neoliberal capitalism in the soil of Gujarat. To put it in the words of the author: “The gradual demise of Congress’ and the TLA’s grassroots networks created opportunities for a new kind of politics. Hindu-nationalist organisations gradually managed to fill the vacuum created by the demise of these older networks… The 1985 riots marked the end of Congress’ dominance in Gujarat… Since that year the BJP has been Gujarat’s biggest party. The rise of the BJP was accompanied by increasing Hindu-Muslim tensions, culminating in Hindu-Muslim riots in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 2002.” (pp. 67-68)

In his ethnographic study, Berenschot has explored the modes of politicisation of Gujarat neigh-bourhoods and functioning of chamchas. He argued in this context: “The state’s infrastructural power has not developed to such an extent that the newly developed services are easily accessible. This has led to replacement of the elder dignitaries of the older civic institutions by local politicians and their chamchas as the most influential figures in Gujarat’s neighbour-hood life… this coming of the chamchas has engendered local political networks that, in 2002, could be used to mobilise people for violence”. (p. 43)

The author has also explored the nexus between politicians, state officials and goondas in Gujarat (See pp. 121-136). He narrated the story of a person, who became a hero after his violent role in 2002 riots in Gujarat:

“In March 2002, Shailesh Macwana was leading mobs on violent raids throughout Isanpur. He encouraged mobs to attack Muslim localities, he set fire to several houses, and some residents say that he personally killed a few Muslims. He gave speeches in several chawls about the dangers that Muslims were posing, and he intimidated those appealing for peace. At the same time SaileshMacwana and his supporters were providing relief to the Dalit and upper- caste residents of Isanpur…

Shailesh Macwana was arrested after the first, most intense weeks of rioting; the police charged him with murder and rioting. The arrest provoked widespread protest and the police, thus pressurised, decided after three months that the BJP politician should be released…But when he was released, he had become a local hero. The BJP supported his candidature for the state elections and ten months later he won a seat in what many considered to be a Congress constituency…Shailesh Macwana himself attributes his victory to his activities during the riots…” (p. 158)

Berenschot documented the convergence of money power and muscle power in the local politics of Gujarat: “Goondas are also indispensable for the money that they bring in; Pradeepbhai mentioned how he contributed to Shailesh Macwana’s campaigning budget…A large part of this budget is collected throughout the year in the form of hapta, the regular payments that owners of illegal businesses pay to the police and politicians to prevent arrest or harassment.” (p. 125)

While locating the ‘infrastructure of violence’ in the context of Gujarat riots of 2002, the author observed: “According to several informants the VHP and the RSS started organising new weekly meetings inside the chawls in Isanpur in the months before the riots, which were discontinued after the riots. This increased activity of VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal units was also noted in other parts of Gujarat, which suggests that the preparation for the violence had been under way before the burning of the train coach in Godhra.” (p. 177)

The findings of ethnographic fieldwork done by Berenschot in three urban localitities in Gujarat– Maneknagar, Isanpur (which used to be a neighbourhood of textile mill labourers) and Raamrahim-nagar)–between January 2005 and March 2006 got incorporated in his book, Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State. The book is a seminal account of micro politics of communal mobilisation and communal violence in Gujarat.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023