Sociologist Dr Raheel Dhattiwala has penned a book ‘Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002’, which dwells on the mechanisms of peacekeeping during mass violence. In an interview with The Indian Express, she explains how spatial layouts dictate patterns of violence and how it is possible to ensure peace even in the face of intergroup hostility. Excerpts:
Why did you write this book?
I was born and brought up in Ahmedabad, a city that has witnessed a number of Hindu-Muslim riots starting from 1969 to 2002. I wanted to study why this happens and why certain localities remain peaceful despite the violence around them. There are two ways that people try to explain why such violence occurs. One is the macro view where the violence in blamed on political ideology, economic factors or institutionalised discrimination. The other way is a bottom view where fewer intergroup ties are seen as reasons for riots. There is something missing in explaining riots through such an approach. People are not robots. Even if there is a political mandate espousing violence, they have an option whether to listen to it or not. People also do not act without a structural frame. My idea of writing this book was an attempt at connecting the macro and micro reasons because that is the only way you can understand collective violence on the ground.
In your book, you say attackers and even targets of violence rarely abandon reason even in the face of heightened emotions. This goes against the commonly perceived notion of riots where everyone is in a frenzy. Can you elaborate why you said that?
When there is collective violence such as a riot or a genocide, actual violence is committed only by a select number of people. Their motivation may be anger or hate. However, not everyone who joins a rioting crowd kills or destroys property. Violence is not easy. In the middle of committing violence, people’s motivation also changes. Riots also lead to confrontational tension where the aggressor has to mentally overcome barriers to deliver any violence. Also, people are into self-preservation; they do not want to injure themselves while attacking. One thing that I noticed during my research was that people are selective where they wanted to attack and whether they wanted to continue with their attacks. Not all places that were attacked had killings. People changed strategy and were actually making decisions in the middle of violence. Even though people’s prior motivation may be differences, violence is situational and it changes your prior motivation. The state may claim that riots are uncontrollable because it was a frenzied faceless mob and they could not do anything, but that is not true. At the macro level, you can see that the political logic of violence is not random. In 2002, the violence was least in areas where the BJP was strongest. If it was spontaneous, you would believe that the largest number of attacks would be in BJP strongholds. However, that was not the case. The maximum violence happened where BJP had greatest complications in the upcoming elections.
You have also said the course of political orchestrated violence is complicated by the ecology of the targeted space. Does that mean ghettoisation of communities ensures their safety?
In a way, yes. If you are in a ghetto in a large number, there are fewer chances that there will be violence against you. However, by living in such spaces, the chances of facing prejudice or being prejudiced increases because communities are separated. It is not good. Only when you live together will you know each other. When I say ecology of your living area, I do not only mean numbers but also the topography, space and how people use this space. One classic example is of the Naroda Patiya massacre where 97 Muslims were killed. You had Muslims living on both sides of the road with more Muslims on one side than the other. The killings took place where more Muslims lived. The topography of the place did not allow them to mount their defence while Muslims on the other side could defend themselves because of the topography of the space.
The commonly held view is that greater integration and sharing of living space is an antidote against communal violence. In your book, you, however, say even harmonious alliances are not sufficient to sustain peace. Can you explain this?
It is utopian to believe that people who live in large groups will begin to love each other. It is a naive way to look at things because factionalism and friction will always be there. I am not arguing against the ethos of harmony, but when you have politically orchestrated violence, it is rarely enough to counter it. There is a sense among people that they will dishonour their community if they choose to not attack the other community. There is this economic theory of common pool resource which says if you want to prevent certain behaviour you need to self-govern neighbourhoods. I have cited the example of neighbourhoods such as Ram Rahimnagar and Makarba in Ahmedabad, where people, instead of going to police, self-governed their areas. Hindus physically punished or sent off individuals who might create communal disturbance in the area, while Muslims employed a strategy of stopping those who wanted to flee the community. My understanding is that it is not merely about liking each other, my study shows that people can develop bonds despite not being too friendly with each other.
In your book, there is a sense of unease among people when they speak about harmony. While it may be specific to the book, this seems to be the case across India with distrust between communities. How can this be overcome?
The point is that you do not need to like each other to develop good alliances. You can’t expect people who have a long history of antagonism to suddenly start dining with each other. You, however, need some other mechanism of creating civil bonds to prevent violence. There are things that can be done. We need to recognise that violence is not spontaneous but orchestrated. You need to ensure that legal action is taken against people involved in violence. Also, conflict societies prime people to avoid routine conflict by maintaining superficial relations with contiguous neighbours, especially when residential mobility is constrained. People can come together but it would be rather naive to think that we can stay as one big happy family.