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Why people participate in communal riots?

People participate in communal riots because of a sense of personal justification, reduced personal risk, hostile relationship and an intense emotional response to a recent incident.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2004 13:21 IST

According to Donald L Horowitz, who has done an extensive work on communal violence in India and elsewhere, the level of violence is the most disturbing aspect of riots. He says that high levels of violence mark communal riots, often resulting in massive deaths as well as maiming, looting, and destruction of property owned by the ethnic group targeted by the rioters.

However, in understanding the causes of communal riots, researchers have often placed too much emphasis on rioters using the riot as a tool to seek redress for perceived socio-economic or political grievances. Instead, he argued, two main aspects better describe the dynamics governing the size, brutality, and virulence of communal riots.

Firstly, Horowitz points out that communal riots are often planned. Targets for violence are often carefully selected and rioters have even been found to plan traps for specific individuals or to devise strategies to maximise causalities and damage to the targeted ethnic group.

Elaborating his previous point, Horowitz argues that an evil combination of anxiety and hatred have always played a significant motivator for rioters. His research has pointed out that rumours had frequently played a major role in motivating crowds. Rioters saw their actions as a necessary pre-emptive action against a plan by the rival ethnic group. Ironically, Horowitz explained, as these rumours were always baseless, the actions of the rioters frequently created a self-fulfilling prophecy. The rioters overestimated the threat and took disproportionate action, thereby creating a threat where it didn't exist when the victimised ethnic group subsequently responded in the wake of the riot.

Why people participate in communal riots

Analysing communal riots in the context of brutality, his research has examined the question of what prompts an individual to participate in riots. He says that four main elements are needed to actively induce individuals to join in a communal riot.

Firstly, a sense of personal justification. Most rioters see themselves as "heroes" defending their own ethnic group. Participating in communal riots is often personally gratifying. Rioters not only see their cause as righteous, but as an act of defense (even if pre-emptively) against a perceived imminent and grave threat.

Secondly, a sense of reduced personal risk. Horowitz points out that contrary to popular perception, studies show that rioters tend to be rational decision-makers. In particular, his research has shown that participants in communal riots use a rational decision-making process where they seek to maximise destruction while minimising personal risk. Therefore, rioters seek to attack "strong targets at weak moments" when there is a reduced risk of punishment by government agencies or retaliation by the targeted ethnic group.

Thirdly, an inherently hostile relationship with the other ethnic group. Horowitz research indicates that rioters in general share hatred of the targeted ethnic group. This was usually manifested by an obsessive type of ethnic hatred where the rioters believed that all members of the targeted ethnic group thought the same way on socio-economic and political issues and felt a sense of general repulsion of the ethnic group overall.

Fourthly, an intense emotional response to a recent incident. Building upon his previous point, he stressed that not only in such cases did "aggression feel good," but is often rooted in a negative response to recent events. This creates an opportunity for the rioters to not only see their actions as heroic, but also as an opportunity to correct a perceived social, economic, or political wrong against their own ethnic group. Thereby communal riots provide an opportunity for the release of built-up group or communal tensions and anger.

Relationship between civil society and riots

In examining the relationships and social structures within multiethnic societies, University of Michigan associate professor and author Ashutosh Varshney argues that research has shown that the viability of intra and inter-ethnic social networks has played an important role in how susceptible the society has been to communal riots. More specifically, Varshney points out that his research indicates that societies without strong inter-ethnic social structures are more prone to ethnic violence.

Elaborating upon the importance of inter-ethnic social structures in defusing ethnic tensions, Varshney notes that both formal organised associations, such as professional associations or unions, and informal or neighbourhood-level associations, such as book or sports clubs, tend to be helpful. However, he stressed that his research has found that more formal organised social structures appear to be able to better withstand ethnic tensions. He also found that these types of organisation not only provided for stronger personal and professional bonds between individuals in different ethnic groups, but also provided for important informal channels of inter-ethnic communication.

Using civil society structures to combat ethnic violence

To understand how civil society structures could be used effectively to help lessen ethnic violence, Varshney examines the elements in multi-ethnic societies that have been prone to ethnic violence and riots as well as those that have been able to weather such tensions largely peacefully. His research has clearly found a link between inter-ethnic civil society structures and lower incidences of ethnic violence. Varshney laments that civil society tools are frequently under-utilised as a tool to combat ethnic tensions. He says that civil society reforms have already proved in several cases to be a valuable tool in defusing some of the underlying elements that serve to create an atmosphere where communal riots are likely.

For example, research of cities in India, which have proven to be less riot prone, indicates that the inter-ethnic bonds and communication structures facilitated by organised professional associations have proved to be a valuable tool in stopping rumours before they reach critical mass within the community. Such social structures also provide a vital unofficial channel of communication to leaders and opinion makers in both ethnic communities that can be used in crisis management, Varshney noted.

Research indicates that neighbourhood-level social structures can provide an important opportunity for everyday inter-ethnic interaction that is helpful in combating perceptions by individuals that all members of a certain ethnic group think or felt the same way about controversial social, religious, economic, or political issues.

Varshney concludes that the type of civil society mechanisms does not occur naturally in areas with very strict ethnic division lines and that active facilitation was needed by the state or other actors. He also stressed that while it was not possible to completely eliminate ethnic conflict, the proper application of such civil society tools could help reduce and manage ethnic violence in multiethnic societies.

First Published: Feb 10, 2004 00:00 IST