Riots and the state

back to issue

THE most important question regarding inter-religious community riots is: Can a determined state prevent such riots with an iron hand? Or, to put it differently: Can inter-religious community riots take place in a secular and religiously neutral state? The study of the relationship between the state and inter-religious community riots has assumed special significance in the context of violent riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

The thesis which we wish to validate and substantiate is that the violent inter-communal riots in Gujarat took place because state power both at the Centre and the state is in the hands of the forces of Hindutva. Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister of India and Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat are believers and practitioners of an anti-minority ideology and cannot be ‘neutral’ in Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Christian riots.

Its opposite is also true. If the Sangh Parivar has to be believed that violent anti-Muslim riots began with the burning of a railway train compartment on 27 February 2002 at Godhra in which Hindu Ram sevaks were travelling, neighbouring Madhya Pradesh should also have witnessed a backlash against the killings of innocent Hindus at Godhra. Nothing of the kind happened in any other state of India. Even the Maharashtra government was able to crush violent riots in an effective manner. Hence, the role of the state is crucial in the promotion or prevention of inter-community violent riots.

This is the reason which leads us to reject Aushutosh Varshney’s tautological circulatory logic when, on the one hand, he reluctantly concedes the role of state functionaries in the prevention of riots and, on the other, maintains that, ‘The local organs of the state function better when there are robust links between Hindus and Muslims in civil life – associational in the cities and quotidian in the village’ (Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Oxford, Delhi, 2002, p. 280). As a practitioner of American social science, Varshney fails to understand the role of ideology which is a determining factor in the role played by the state apparatus during inter-community violent riots.

If the state apparatus is controlled and guided by the believers of an anti-minority ideology, the so-called civil society associations of Varshney simply collapse in their capacity to prevent riots. Marxist social science, which is fundamentally different to Varshney’s American political science, better explains the empirical reality of violent riots by linking them to the central ideology of the state. ‘The fundamental role of the state in ensuring the reproduction and political cohesion of capitalist class societies remains the most important question of political theory’ (Konstantinos Tsonkalas, ‘Globalisation and The Executive Committee: Reflections on the Contemporary Capitalist State’, The Socialist Register). Hence every capitalist state has to promote an ideological superstructure under which the dominant exploiting classes can legitimize their essential activity of accumulation of surplus.

Marxists like Gramsci and Poulantzas sharply focused their attention on the central role of ideology of capitalist states for the reproduction of capitalist social relations. One facet of such an ideology in public life is exemplified by the Hindu joint family represented by the Sangh Parivar. This ideology presently controls and guides the ‘political executive’ which is at the summit of state power. Hence the state is providing a ‘sanction’ for inter-community religious riots.

This is so not only in India. A powerful example of an ‘authoritative’ sanction for riots is provided by Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka who on 18 April 1977, states during the period of inter-community tensions: ‘If you (Tamils) want to fight let there be a fight; if you want peace let there be peace.’ As head of government of a country, he sanctioned riots against a minority community by holding them responsible for violence or peace. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, too has repeatedly stated that the Muslims of Gujarat missed an opportunity to win over the Hindus by not condemning the burning of the railway compartment occupied by Hindu kar sevaks at Godhra on 27 February 2002.

Even the Sangh Parivar has described the violent carnage against Muslims in Gujarat as a post-Godhra reaction in which the chief minister played an active (and partisan) role. Not only this. Narendra Modi announced a compensation of rupees two lakh for the Hindus martyrs at Godhra and rupees one lakh for the innocent Muslim victims of the riots. Even the dead were discriminated against. Unlike Varshney’s wishy-washy study on the role of the state, Donald L. Horowitz in his book (The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Oxford, New Delhi, 2001) clearly observes that, ‘Authoritative approval or disapproval can push incipient violence in one direction or another’ (p. 91). Horowitz further elaborates by observing that: ‘There is not a single riot considered in this book in which rioters miscalculated their own tactics and power, the intentions of the police, or the response of their targets, such that rioters suffered more casualties than the targets did’ (p. 52).

Rioters are more cautious than the victims of violence and if the groups indulging in violence against a target group are unsure of support from the state apparatus and not assured a protective umbrella by state functionaries, they are likely to think twice before killing. During the recent riots in Gujarat, a lot was made about the participation of the scheduled tribes in the riots against the Muslims. A field report from Anil Rana under the caption: ‘Bread trumps ballot in Gujarati Muslim’s list of woes’ enlightens us on the role of tribals in mid-March 2002. Urvashi Devi, the Congress MLA from Baria, said that the areas predominantly comprise of Ghachi Muslims. ‘Every village has a population which runs shops for tribals. Very soon they became moneylenders and then settle, marrying the tribal girls, though not under force.’ This has been the underlying cause of tension.

A well-known fact about the social reality of a complex and diverse society is that multiple groups compete against one another, giving rise to conflicts. But a violent riot is different from inter-community tension or conflict/competition. Anil Rana, on the evidence of the local MLA informs us that: ‘Soon after Godhra, when the tribals realised that violence elsewhere was going unpunished, they too took up arms in a somewhat delayed retaliation for their pent-up feeling against the Muslims. This explains why the attacks in the tribal region started only on 11 March’ (The Statesman, 13 November 2002, p. 9).

Anil Rana’s testimony, along with the evidence provided by Horowitz confirms our main thesis, that inter-community religious riots depend essentially on the attitude of the state towards the minorities. The BJP governments whether at the Centre or in the states are committed to an ideology of anti-minority Hindu assertion and aggression and this explains the continuing riots in Gujarat. We have the testimony of the Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh who on the forthcoming elections in Gujarat recently observed: ‘In Kashmir, we were put in personal danger. It is not dangerous in Gujarat, but it is much more nasty… society here is not healthy’ (The Indian Express, 12 November 2002). While elaborating, Lyngdoh observed that: ‘Provocative speeches are being made. In some relief camps, water supply has been disconnected for days. What else can be called nasty’ (The Indian Express, 13 November 2002). If the state government’s attitude towards Muslim refugees is so callous and discriminatory, its intention to be neutral towards all citizens can not be taken on face value.

Another study by Thomas Blom Hansen: Urban Violence in India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’ and the Post Colonial City (Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2001) informs that if the Shiv Sena controls the state government, violence against minorities is in the logic of its politics and ideology. He observes: ‘I found it necessary, however, to relate this story because Shiv Sena’s success has caused many deaths and much destruction, ultimately transforming the very notions of politics, public behaviour, civility and legality, which has implications for every citizen in the mega-city… I have ventured as well as to assert that the Shiv Sena has pushed beyond legality many of the qualities of India’s political society that we salute – its energy, it irreverence, its democratization of public space, its vernacularization of democracy…’ (p. 234).

If the Sangh Parivar or the Shiv Sena, John Haidar’s Freedom Party in Austria, the late Pim Fortuyan in the Netherlands or Le Pen’s National Front in France control state power, minorities are bound to be victims of majority violence because the state apparatus under such political formations is ideologically committed to violently punish the minorities. The Sangh Parivar, along with right wing racist parties of the western countries, share a common belief that Hindus are the ‘original tenants of the land/territory known as Bharat’ and others are ‘outsiders’ and inferior human beings. K.P.S. Gill, who was sent as an adviser by the central government to assist the Narendra Modi government in dealing with ‘riots’, observed: ‘Riots would not take place if the government did not want them… no riots could take place if the political establishment was impartial’ (The Times of India, 14 November 2002. Also see The Hindu, 14 November 2002).

The other side of the story is that a determined government can prevent inter-religious communal riots. Asghar Ali Engineer argues in ‘Able Handling of Recent Riots in Maharashtra’ that: ‘It is not basically a fight between Hindus and Muslims who want to live in peace. All these disturbances in Maharashtra (44 riots in recent years) should be seen in this perspective. It must be acknowledged that the present government in Maharashtra is trying to control communal violence despite recent provocative incidents. Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena tried to provoke Hindus through utterances on his Dassera-eve speech instigating Hindu youth to form suicide squads’ (Economic and Political Weekly, 26 October 2002, p. 4353). The evidence provided by Hansen and Engineer on Bombay validates our basic argument that violent riots can take place with only full state apparatus support or nipped in the bud and prevented if the state functionaries, especially the political executive sitting at the summit is determined to crush the riots.

The above narrative demonstrates that state power is a central issue for social scientists and social critics. Civil society or associational groups or autonomous NGOs can at best supplement the state in creating a secular society but cannot supplant it in the maintenance of social order based on respect for minorities (C.P. Bhambhri: Indian Politics Since Independence, I, II, Sipra, 2001). Further, state and civil society are communalised if an anti-secular ideology dominates society. India has witnessed the emergence of a dominant Hindu majority ideology impacting both civil society and state. Multiculturalism, secularism, democracy, the rule of law and the principle of human equality are under attack from the forces of Hindutva because they control the state of India at the present.

Karl Marx had alerted us that ‘the nation-state remains as always the central terrain of class struggle’ and every secularist has to struggle against the state in defence of secular, pluralist democracy.

C.P. Bhambhri


Reproductive rights and U.S. international assistance

IN late July, President Bush cut off funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), deeming it guilty by association for abuses within China’s one-child family programme, despite findings by the Administration’s own investigation that no such links exist. Yet while the focus of public debate is on China and UNFPA, crucial issues about U.S. policies and the politics of reproduction in developing countries continue to be overlooked.

Coercive policies and practices, including the use of targets, incentives and disincentives, are a legacy of the era of the ‘population bomb’. These practices continue in a number of countries today, and in many cases, the United States’ own policies are at least partly to blame. While the premise of cutting funds to UNFPA is concern for women’s rights, the Administration and its conservative allies in Congress are working through the legislative and appropriations process and through more covert tactics in a number of countries to undermine the very health services on which millions of women depend for basic care. The irony is that these efforts, coupled with mounting political pressure in many populous countries to cut birth rates further and faster, increase the likelihood that more women will be subject to heavy-handed approaches to reducing births in the long run.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, mounting fears about the effects of rapid population growth on poverty, the environment and international security led to a focus on reducing birth rates throughout the world. National family planning programmes were established in many populous countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and Peru. Where social conditions were conducive and individual and social goals coincided, birth rates fell relatively quickly. But where demographic objectives were out of sync with individual preferences, fertility declined much more slowly, if at all.

To hasten fertility declines, donor nations invested heavily in family planning programmes. The U.S. Congress, for example, concluded that population control was necessary to preserve order and stability in developing countries and thus protect U.S. interests. Annual appropriations grew rapidly and the United States quickly became the leading donor in this area. U.S. influence in some programmes grew markedly. Over a 25-year period ending in the mid-’90s, for example, the U.S. contributed one-fourth of all funds for Mexico’s family planning programme.

As investments increased, governments simultaneously put increasing pressure on these programmes to show results. The U.S. Congress developed stringent reporting requirements for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), requiring to demonstrate how funding translated into increasing contraceptive use and numbers of births averted, and lower birth rates overall.

As a result of the pressure to perform, ‘choice’ became a relative concept in many programmes. In the 1980s, for example, providers in Indonesia were initially trained to insert Norplant, but not to remove it, leaving women who suffered side-effects or changed their minds without recourse to alternatives, eventually tainting the method itself. During the ’80s and ’90s in Mexico, large numbers of women delivering babies in government maternity hospitals were sterilized without consent, a practice that continues in at least some states today.

In Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere, women were encouraged to choose sterilization and IUDs over other less effective methods. Food, money, and other incentives were used along with disincentives in a carrot and stick approach, especially in marginalized communities. Pressure was put on health care providers, whose salaries and even jobs sometimes depended on the numbers of new users recruited.

The historical tension between individual needs and demographic goals created a striking paradox that persists today. Family planning services were and are desperately needed by women seeking to control their fertility safely and effectively. Indeed, increased access to a wide range of reproductive health services is quite literally a life and death issue in places where complications from pregnancy and delivery, unsafe abortion, and HIV are the leading causes of illness and death among women in the prime of their lives. Yet from their inception, these services became the conduit for a political agenda that had less to do with women’s needs than it did with the achievement of demographic goals.

In the early ’90s, non-governmental organizations from every region worked to forge international agreements, such as the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, that called for a shift from the past toward a focus on promoting women’s health and rights. Since then, national policies in many countries have changed dramatically. And both bilateral and multilateral donor agencies such as USAID and UNFPA have worked strenuously to retool and provide both leadership and technical assistance to countries struggling to implement new approaches. Not surprisingly, changes on the ground have lagged behind in part because problems created over a period of 40 years cannot be changed overnight, in part because of conflicting political agendas, and in part because a population control agenda is re-emerging in some countries.

In 1995, for example, the Government of India sought to do away with its notorious target-based family planning programme by creating the ‘target-free approach’, intended to create a system focused on individual choice and quality of care. But many states never really became target-free, due to lack of commitment to and funding for needed changes in programmes, and lack of alternative means of evaluating the performance of health workers, among other things. Poor quality of care and questionable practices remain a problem in several states.

This scenario has been repeated in Peru, where under former President Alberto Fujimori, the government focused on achieving demographic objectives by aggressively increasing the use of modern contraceptives. Targets were set in which health care workers were required to fulfil numeric quotas for sterilization was legalized in Peru in 1995. This approach led to the same types of abuses of choice and consent that have been evident in India, Mexico, and other countries.

Strenuous efforts to improve services are being made by international agencies such as UNFPA, USAID and innumerable national and international NGOs, but these have been persistently undermined by the recurrent funding cuts sought by conservatives. Multilateral institutions, frequently viewed by recipient governments as more independent than bilateral donors, can act as a more effective counterweight to coercive measures. Last year, in the state of Gujarat, India, for example, the government considered stringent measures aimed at promoting two-child families. In field visits conducted last fall, sources both within and outside the government repeatedly told us that UNFPA played a singular role in lobbying for critical changes to the policy that focused on individual rights.

Problems in these programmes are a reality, but given the urgent need for reproductive health services worldwide, they are far from the whole story. Yet the conservative right here and abroad have nonetheless joined forces to undermine reproductive health programmes in every way possible, using human rights as a foil for their efforts, while making no commitment to improving women’s health or taking meaningful steps to eliminate coercion. In effect, the right has merely replaced one anti-woman political agenda with another.

Each year, for example, conservatives in the U.S. Congress seek new ways to limit funding for family planning by insisting on onerous procedures such as ‘metering,’ in which funds appropriated by Congress were literally meted out to USAID in increments so small that programmes could not function properly. Congressman Chris Smith, who has made a career of bashing and undermining health programmes, recently visited Peru where he and his staff have been working doggedly behind the scenes to undermine access to emergency contraception and to the equipment needed to treat life-threatening infections in women with complications from unsafe abortions.

In addition, laws passed in recent years by the U.S. Congress under the guise of preventing coercion, are instead routinely used as a tool to further undermine programmes in ways that are likely to increase it. In 1998, for example, Congressman Tiahrt, who earlier had tried and failed to completely eliminate U.S. bilateral funding for family planning, attached an amendment to the 1998 appropriations bill that calls for withdrawing funds from any country in which violations can be found. Since then, the Tiahrt Amendment has been used by conservatives to mandate cumbersome monitoring and reporting by USAID, and to justify sending missions abroad to investigate abuses for the purposes of cutting funds altogether.

Such absolutist measures are both dangerous and counterproductive. First, they unquestionably make it harder for donor agencies to openly address problems where they exist for fear of losing funds altogether. This happened in Mexico where, throughout the ’90s, we and our colleagues in Mexico persistently raised concerns with the government and donors about violations of informed choice and changes needed to address these. At the same time, however, Congressman Smith was forging alliances with the Catholic Church in Mexico, an institution not known for its avid support of family planning.

Concerns about political harassment by the conservative right in the U.S. Congress and the Church in Mexico coupled with irrefutable evidence about violations led the major players first to adopt a series of superficial remedies for promoting informed choice, and second to withdraw U.S. funds from the programme altogether so as not to endanger funding for other programmes. The end result: Little has since been done to remedy a situation created jointly by both countries.

Such tactics also further undermine women’s rights by reducing the resources available to those agencies most able to provide high quality services directly to women while offering desperately needed technical assistance to larger-scale government programmes. Finally, they threaten the stability and clout of those in the greatest position to counter the resurgence of coercive policies. In this regard, defunding UNFPA demonstrates as little logic as forbidding independent election observers to remain in countries where vote fraud is rampant.

A better approach would be to acknowledge that needed changes are going to be made only incrementally even in the best of circumstances, to distinguish between incident and pattern, and to continue funding programmes while monitoring progress on informed choice and quality of care. Eliminating coercion while promoting women’s health and rights will simultaneously require a dramatic increase in funds to expand and improve reproductive health programmes worldwide and an unfailing commitment to providing a wider range of needed services. Finally, this agenda requires an acknowledgment that having helped create the situation in the first place, the U.S. has a moral and ethical obligation to help change it. In the annual battles to cripple UNFPA and persistently attack USAID, the conservative right in the United States has shown no inclination for such an agenda.

Jodi L. Jacobson and Rupsa Mallik