The Materiality of Riots:  A Tenth Anniversary Story

The history of violence in modern India has had certain standard images. Probably, the most haunting in collective memory is the train.


The train to Pakistan is the unforgettable image of the Partition. The train enacted the everydayness of genocide, the reciprocity of violence between Lahore and Amritsar. Sadat Hasan Manto immortalized it in his stones with that simple line, “The train to Amritsar was seven hours late.” Just that hint of time lag was enough to convey the mayhem that accompanied.


The image of the train rears its head against with the violence of Godhra. The Sabarmatri Express of 2002 carrying Kar Sewaks from Ayodhya was burnt at the station leaving 59 dead. In retaliation, Hindus went berserk and created a riot which lasted over two months and left over a 1000 dead. The inevitable question is: could the violence have been anticipated? There is enough evidence to show that intelligence reports were aware of it and yet the gap between intelligence as information and politics as judgment was to prove a costly one. The Chief Ministers use of physics, claiming “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” was a reflection of bad taste, bad physics and bad politics.


Beginning with the train, the materiality of the riots haunts one. Killing as collective act needs technology. Two of the most lethal instruments for murder were everyday objects. The dharyu, an agricultural implement, used by farm hands became a lethal weapon for disemboweling bodies during the Gujarat riots. What was even more dramatic was the use of gas canister to blow up houses. The cooking gas became a binary weapon, both as a domestic convenience and a destroyer of homes. Yet what made the riots even more macabre was the use of two other technologies. One was the use of the mobile phone to create a connectivity of murder and second was the deliberate use of chemicals during arson. Survivors talk of the presence of numerous tiny bottles of foreign import which not only ate into the skin but scorched the walls indelibly.


Materiality also becomes present in another way. Walking through the slums, one sees the lari (the hand cart on cycle wheels) being inverted, piled on, one against the other, like strange sculptures, as if they are a tribute to the missing. Every empty lari represents a lost livelihood.


Studying the materiality of loss makes me wonder if riots are not a form of economic warfare. Today, riots along with dam projects have become a major form of collective displacement. Of the 13 districts for which we have state intelligence, 70,000 people have not returned to their homes in Gujarat.


This startling fact shows two things. Firstly, that the riots do not return to normalcy at once. Ordinary people are not allowed to return to their livelihoods. Often a man parking his lari in his usual space on the street encounters the goon or the Bajrang Dal enthusiast who prevents any return to livelihood with threats.


There are also reports to show that Hindus wanting to sell their houses to Muslims were prevented through sit-ins and social pressure. One also sees evidence of urban development in areas around Naroda Patia where Muslims are denied access to housing.


This raises a more fundamental question of whether riots are too simplistically seen as a communal problem. Constructed this way, riots are seen as occasional bursts of emotion, episodic outbursts against a particular community. But riots in India appear to be more systemic. A Muslim informant, an experienced activist told me that riots appear to be an act of economic leveling, that whenever Muslim communities build through their enterprise, a riot emerges to level their hard work. But beyond this, riots seem a part of planned urbanization. They set the stage for an urban cleansing equivalent to an ethnic cleansing. When homes are emptied, real estate is born. The sudden upsurge of urbanization in various parts of Gujarat makes one wonder if riots consciously or unconsciously are a part of a deeper plan.


In fact, the idea of development and particularly urban development seems to condone the fact of riots. Many middle-class people seem to think that riots should be forgotten as development is necessary. In fact, the plea for development allows the erasure of the memory of riots. The idea of development compensates for the fact of riots even if they appear causally linked.


It is also clear that while riots create urban real estate, they marginalize the minority groups even more ruthlessly. Anyone who has doubts about this should visit the transit camps at Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad. The camp, which is ironically dubbed, a transit camp, clings to a huge garbage dump. It is the location of the camp that I am questioning. The dump was a small one in 2002. Today, it is a gigantic structure, a mountain of waste, smelling of garbage and chemicals, acrid with smoke, the delight of birds of prey.


The question one wants to ask is that what kind of urban governance would subject a group of survivors to a dump site of this order. It is almost as if the physicality of the act juxtaposes to allied forms of waste – urban waste and urban survivors wasted by riots. There seems to be a symbolic and material juxtaposition of the two forms of life. This is symbolic of the indifference of the Modi regime to normalcy, survival and justice. This to me is the real message of the Gujarat riots, the deliberate destruction, symbolically and materially of a group that is culturally different. The train, the waste dump, the gas canister, the dharyu, the mobile phone are the new material mnemonics of genocide in Gujarat. The city becomes a museum of its own violence unconsciously commemorating a drama it cannot erase.


Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.


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