In the Time of Riots: Communal Violence and Client Politics

Mar 2014

Issue 6  Essay  

Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir | Bombay Doors Here is an eye-witness account of the instigation of communal violence in Gujarat (India) in 2002:

“Shailesh bhai [a local MLA, member of Gujarat’s state assembly] would call some matabhare person [a person with a violent image] and tell him to kill two Muslims. He would say ‘Just kill and then move’. Then four Hindus would be killed, and this is how the riots would start. Shailesh bhai has good contacts with anti-social elements. He uses them during elections. They are paid for. Generally they get boys from outside to do it, and then they help to get them released. They use business people to get them, and they tell them to kill four Muslims, for example. They would say, ‘Come at different times, and each time kill one Muslim, shoot them, or use your knife’.”

A shocking yet recurring element of Hindu-Muslim riots across South Asia is that these episodes of mass violence are generally organized and instigated by networks of politicians and their sycophants. How come? Is politics such a depraved occupation that the killing of hundreds of people is an effective avenue to power? And, given the widespread cynicism and misgivings about politicians, why would anybody heed their calls to attack people that are often practically their neighbours?

Communal violence in India is popularly ascribed to religions tensions between Hindus and Muslims. And, the headlines of the violent rhetoric of Hindu nationalist or radical Islamic organizations reinforce this perspective. The focus on propaganda and ideology creates the impression that Hindu-Muslim violence is merely an outpouring of prejudices and mutual fears.

Yet, in fact, one finds little evidence of religious difference as the source of communal violence. Instead, it is the widespread presence of shadowy, clientelistic networks through which citizens, particularly poorer ones, gain access to state institutions that creates and sustains the massacres. It is these networks that transformed Hindu nationalist vitriol into murderous reality in Gujarat in 2002.


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In 2006, three years after the slaughter of at least 2,000 people in Gujrat, I lived in some of the state’s most violent areas, studying the networks of people that organized mass violence. This is how a neighbor described the process of instigating violence. “They took me to places from where weapons could be bought. We went there secretly in the middle of the riots. At these places I saw [municipal] corporators [councillors], a member of parliament, MLA’s [members of the state’s legislative assembly], and religious people. If I had not left my principles and gone out there, I would not have found out all these things.” Another similarly reported, “In the beginning only some anti-social type elements and some VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) workers are there. And there are some naïve boys; about 25-50 people. These workers give them weapons, they give them money. They feed them masala [tobacco]. They make them drink alcohol. Then they move around in the area saying, ‘Those people [i.e. Muslims] will come, they will kill us, they will do this, they will do that!’”

The popularity of Hindu-nationalist organizations like the VHP or the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is not related just to their appeal to a shared social identity or a shared enemy. It is also closely linked to the way these organizations are seamlessly integrated into local patronage channels and, consequently, the control that members of these organizations wield over the distribution of state resources. As a result, these organizations offer their followers the promise that active support will be rewarded with a job, a business opportunity or preferential treatment by the police. As a local youth, who was recruited by the VHP and participated in a riot against his Muslim neighbors, remarked: “We thought the VHP would give us some power that we can use on other people. Like if I need to fight with someone; for example, if I had some problem with my teacher, then if I talk to the main leader of VHP, lots of people would gather around me.”

It is these promises of power and money these organizations offer, and not just the ideology they disseminate, that garner them command over large numbers of workers. The grassroots networks of Hindu-nationalist activists my informants described would not have been present had it not been for the capacity of nationalist leaders, particularly those of VHP and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), to provide their workers with access to governmental institutions and its resources. By providing local leadership during riots, these workers can distinguish themselves in ways that could later enable them to secure a political position or a government job.

Such observations suggest that the capacity to legitimize or discourage the use of violence is connected to the capacity to provide access to state resources. When political patrons can manipulate the implementation of state policies, marginalized citizens cannot rely solely on the invocation of citizenship rights to gain access to state resources. For these less privileged citizens, the access to such provisions as secure land titles, government jobs and business licenses are not based their rights as citizens. Instead, access depends on negotiations and exchanges of favors with political intermediaries. The experiences of poorer citizens with state institutions confirms the insufficiency of the invocation of their rights, and reinforces the need to develop their private capacity to deal with state institutions, leading them to engage in clientelistic exchange relations with powerholders.

This dependency on political patrons leaves poorer citizens vulnerable to manipulation and instigation. The benefits that can be gained through such clientelistic networks incentivizes a breadth of people to nurture contacts with politicians and influential bureaucrats. In addition to party members and area strongmen, a range of local actors including criminals, state officials, businessmen and police officers rely on political connections to secure “business” opportunities and privileged access to state resources to sustain their livelihood.

These clientelistic incentives facilitate the political instigation of violence. The capacity of political actors to mobilize large mobs, distribute weapons, and prevent police intervention is a function of the rewards that individuals at lower levels of the clientelist pyramid can reap by currying favors with their patrons.

Failure to adequately ingratiate oneself to the political leadership carries deleterious consequences. For example, for police officials, while maintaining good relations with politicians can stream steady bribes, crossing politicians—for example by attempting to prevent violence—can result in transfers to ‘punishment postings’. Given the considerable bribe police officers often pay to secure good (lucrative) posts, such transfers imply serious financial risk. Financially dependent on political patrons, police officers cannot function as a bulwark against the instigation of ethnic violence. Politicians’ control over the police undermines the capacity and willingness of individual officers to function as custodians of the law.

Local criminals or goondas, important contributors to communal violence,are locked in a similar relationship with patronage networks. Political leaders need individuals known for their capacity for violence not only for the money that their illegal activities provide, but also for ‘muscle power’ for protection and to establish local authority in the absence of a fully sovereign police force. Local authority and the capacity to enact and curtail violence are closely bound up. When the state’s monopoly of the use of violence is at best fragile, citizens rely on local patrons to provide security and to control and punish violent acts.

For their part, local goondas and preman face strong incentives to attach themselves to political patrons. Their livelihoods, based on such activities as extortion, gambling and illegal trade, require political shield from police intervention. The control that politicians exert over the bureaucracy—particularly the police—thus generates lucrative forms of cooperation between politicians and violent entrepreneurs.


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Taking the lead in the actual perpetration of violence offers local goondas a productive opportunity to secure the gratitude of people who can help them to stay in business after the riots. As one informant explained: “In the time of riots they [goondas] become leaders. If they do not take part, they will spoil their image. In normal times, these people do dadagiri [‘illegal activities’]. So he feels that if he would not take leadership in riot times, he would suffer for his misbehavior in normal times. People will say [if he does take leadership] you helped us, so you can go ahead with your dadagiri.” Driven by the need to protect their own illegal activities, goondas nurture their relationship with political patrons by becoming ready leaders of local violence.

The capacity and interests of political actors to instigate and organise communal rioting is closely related to their capacity to provide access to state resources. The cooperation during the riots between politicians and various types of rioters—from local criminals to political workers, neighbourhood leaders and police officers—is in fact an extension of the everyday clientelistic interactions through which citizens deal with state institutions. It is clientelistic politics – and not religious differences – that is fuelling communal conflicts in South Asia. The prevention of communal violence hinges on improving the delivery of public services, and curtailing the dependency of poorer citizens on political intermediaries.

Ward Berenschot is a political scientist and author of Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State (Hurst/Oxford University Press 2011).

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3 Responses to In the Time of Riots: Communal Violence and Client Politics

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:40 AM

    […] ethnography of the local, everyday workings of the state, Ward Berenschot asks us to think about riot violence in South Asia outside narratives of primordial hatreds. Zehra Hashmi reviews Imran Qureshi’s […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 5 | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 9:28 PM

    […] We brought you reviews of The Scatter Here Is Too Great and The Corpse Washer, and essays on communal riots in India, labor organization in the Gulf, the history of Golden Dawn, liberal narratives about the […]

  3. […] In the Time of Riots | Ward Berenschot  (Photo credit: Asadullah […]

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