Paul R. Brass

The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India

Events labelled “Hindu-Muslim riots” have been recurring features in India for three-quarters of a century or more. In northern and western India, especially, there are numerous cities and town in which riots have become endemic. In such places, riots have, in effect, become a grisly form of dramatic production in which there are three phases: preparation/​rehearsal, activation/​enactment, and explanation/​interpretation. In these sites of endemic riot production, preparation and rehearsal are continuous activities. Activation or enactment of a large-scale riot takes place under particular circumstances, most notably in a context of intense political mobilization or electoral competition in which riots are precipitated as a device to consolidate the support of ethnic, religious, or other culturally marked groups by emphasizing the need for solidarity in face of the rival communal group. The third phase follows after the violence in a broader struggle to control the explanation or interpretation of the causes of the violence. In this phase, many other elements in society become involved, including journalists, politicians, social scientists, and public opinion generally.
At first, multiple narratives vie for primacy in controlling the explanation of violence. On the one hand, the predominant social forces attempt to insert an explanatory narrative into the prevailing discourse of order, while others seek to establish a new consensual hegemony that upsets existing power relations, that is, those which accept the violence as spontaneous, religious, mass-based, unpredictable, and impossible to prevent or control fully. This third phase is also marked by a process of blame displacement in which social scientists themselves become implicated, a process that fails to isolate effectively those most responsible for the production of violence, and instead diffuses blame widely, blurring responsibility, and thereby contributing to the perpetuation of violent productions in future, as well as the order that sustains them.
In India, all this takes place within a discourse of Hindu-Muslim hostility that denies the deliberate and purposive character of the violence by attributing it to the spontaneous reactions of ordinary Hindus and Muslims, locked in a web of mutual antagonisms said to have a long history. In the meantime, in post-Independence India, what are labelled Hindu-Muslim riots have more often than not been turned into pogroms and massacres of Muslims, in which few Hindus are killed. In fact, in sites of endemic rioting, there exist what I have called “institutionalized riot systems,” in which the organizations of militant Hindu nationalism are deeply implicated. Further, in these sites, persons can be identified, who play specific roles in the preparation, enactment, and explanation of riots after the fact. Especially important are what I call the “fire tenders,” who keep Hindu-Muslim tensions alive through various inflammatory and inciting acts; “conversion specialists,” who lead and address mobs of potential rioters and give a signal to indicate if and when violence should commence; criminals and the poorest elements in society, recruited and rewarded for enacting the violence; and politicians and the vernacular media who, during the violence, and in its aftermath, draw attention away from the perpetrators of the violence by attributing it to the actions of an inflamed mass public. When successful, as it most often is, the principal beneficiaries of this process of blame displacement are the government and its political leaders, under whose watch such violence occurs. Here also, in the aftermath, social scientists become involved when they draw attention to the difficulties of “governance” in societies where interethnic and intercommunal animosities are allegedly rampant. They thus themselves become implicated in a political discourse that focuses on these alleged difficulties of governance rather than with the suffering of the victims of misgovernance, and thereby normalizes the violence against its victims.

Selected Works

An Indian Political Life focuss on the role of Charan Singh in the politics of the period, while providing a broader perspective on the major issues, controveries, and developments of the time.
This collection of essays focus on the various forms of collective violence that have occurred in India during the past six decades, which include riots, pogroms, and genocide.
Explains the persistence of Hindu-Muslim rioting in India.
Case studies of collective violence in the twentieth century.
Second edition, covering Indian politics and political economy from 1947 to 1992.
Comparative and theoretical studies of ethnic groups and nationalities in India and the Soviet Union.
Comparative studies in ethnic conflict and the interaction of ethnic identity and the state.
History and analysis of the politics of language and religious movements in northern India,
The first major study of local politics in post-Independence India.
Articles and Essays
Critique of the Social Sciences in Light of the Works of Nietzsche and Foucault
Focuses on three aspects of the Bihar Famine crisis: the process of defining the situation in Bihar; the rehtoric used in labeling it and in distinguishing it from a "normal" situation; and the responses of the authorities to the crisis.
A consideration of the consequences of curfew restrictions for the populations affected by them and the human rights issues raised by extended and punitive curfew restrictions, with special attention to India.
Discusses the problems of memorialization faced by religious/ethnic communities whose members have been subjected to large-scale, traumatic violence.
Reviews of my book by Thomas Blom Hansen, A. R. Momin, and Roger Petersen, with my response.
Text of article published in the INDIAN JOURNAL OF SECULARISM, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Jan-Mar 2006)
Biographies of Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Vallabhbhai Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Ram Manohar Lohia in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Text of article published in the ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY (October 30, 2004).
Text of article published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 27 (No. 3) May 2004, pp. 353-375.
Chapter 1 in Ravinder Kaur (ed.), Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005), pp. 46-68.
Analysis of the 1984 parliamentary election results in Uttar Pradesh
Text of article published in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), 1174-1191.
Text of article published in Modern Asian Studies, XVIII, No. 1 (February, 1984), 89-118.
Transcript of a discussion with Asghar Ali Engineer at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, Washington, D. C., held on January 12, 2004
Analysis of the killings and destruction in the Indian state of Gujarat after February 27, 2002.
Analysis of Foucault's ideas concerning power, knowledge, governing, and governance.
Conference papers
Prepared for the Panel on “Corruption as Practice and Discourse in India” at the Annual Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, Madison, October 19-22, 2006
Prepared for the Hiroshima Peace Institute Conference on Comparative Research into Genocide and Mass Violence, Hiroshima, Japan, March 22-26, 2004)
Methodology and ideology in the analysis of forms of collective violence