From 1984 to 2020, Delhi’s response
Two questions shape people’s choices: Do I have control over events? Can I predict future threats? Violence evokes contrasting responses from even similar people, and every riot changes lives in more ways than one
In February 2020, northeast Delhi saw the Capital’s deadliest riots in decades. The riots killed 53 and injured hundreds. In the aftermath, some residents erected barricades or gates outside their lanes. Others left their homes for relief camps in Delhi, or even returned to their ancestral villages across India.
The following week, I was in west Delhi interviewing Sikhs who had survived the city’s last cataclysmic wave of communal violence in 1984. The survivors I interviewed also described a vast range of different strategies they had adopted to try and survive. Some hid in darkened flats for days, or cut their hair and beards. Some wielded kirpans to defend their lanes or colonies, while others left Delhi for good.
During political violence around the world —including decades of communal riots in India— people respond to chaos and danger in many different ways. For everyone who participates in violence, there is someone who has barricaded themselves in a closet. For every family that seeks refuge in another neighbourhood or state, another family tries to adapt to the danger and stay put. In many instances, there are hardly any noticeable differences between the people who choose radically different strategies when they confront danger.
Take an example from 1984: Two women in Southwest Delhi faced nearly identical mob violence on the same day, but responded in very different ways. One woman from Palam, saw her father taken from their home and set on fire (probably with phosphorous powder). Another woman, only 3km away in Sagarpur, witnessed a mob take her father, brother, husband, and son from their home and beat them to death. The woman from Palam immediately left and resettled in Punjab. The woman from Sagarpur remained — she continues to live in Delhi.
How do we make sense of these choices? In my research, I study the experiences of Indian Sikhs who survived violence in Delhi in 1984 in order to understand their decisions. I draw lessons from their stories to understand the forces that shape people’s responses to violence across different religious groups, different types of violence, and different countries.
Even people who are very similar to each other often perceive and interpret a violent situation in different ways. Different perceptions and interpretations, in turn, motivate people to respond differently to threats of violence. Two particular interpretations (or appraisals) are important for understanding people’s behaviour — a person’s appraisal of how much control they have over the outcome of violence, and their appraisal of how predictable the evolution of violent threats will be in the near future.
People who assess control and predictability differently tend toward different behaviours to keep themselves safe. People who feel uncertain about the future and believe they have no agency to mitigate threats to their safety (no control) tend to flee from violence. People who feel that they have control, but aren’t confident in their ability to predict the future try to fight back against threats. People who feel the future is more predictable and understandable either try to minimise their exposure to threat by “hiding” or try to engage constructively with the sources of danger, depending on how in control they feel.
These interpretations guided the choices of many survivors of the 1984 violence in Delhi. Across interviews with survivors in Delhi as well as many survivors who migrated to northern California, and across an archive of over 500 oral histories of the violence, I find that people’s assessments of control and predictability are strongly connected to the strategies they end up selecting.
People facing violence use their assessments of control and predictability to help them make sense of chaos. But in the haze of conflict, not everyone makes sense of chaos in the same way. The women from Palam and Sagarpur, for example, saw their situations differently. The woman from Sagarpur believed she understood how the mobs worked. Before her father died, he described a theory of the violence — mobs were targeting those who were visibly Sikh (mostly men), and were especially brutal toward people who tried to fight back.
This set of “rules” made the violence more predictable — though no less traumatic — for the woman from Sagarpur. Her perception of predictability led her to stay put in Delhi, where she still lives. The woman from Palam felt no such sense of predictability. Members of her family were basically tricked — her father was killed by people who had promised him safety. As soon as possible, the woman from Palam left the neighbourhood, and Delhi all together. Even these two similar-seeming women, facing nearly identical violence on the same day, interpreted their circumstances differently, and followed those interpretations to decide what they needed to do to survive.
Riots in February 2020 never spilled across the Yamuna, but rumours and fear spread as far west as neighbourhoods such as Dwarka, Janakpuri, and Tilak Nagar. In interviews, people described the scenes of 1984 returning to their minds when they heard rumours that the 2020 riots were coming to west Delhi. Some prepared to correct the “mistakes” they made in 1984 like not having access to weapons. Some cancelled weekend plans and kept their children home, fearful of having a son or daughter stranded across the city during a riot. Others talked about fleeing — what relative could take them in if the violence started?
As in 1984, everyone saw something slightly different in the facts they could gather and made different plans accordingly. Violence evokes contrasting responses from even similar people, and every riot changes lives in more ways than one.
Aidan Milliff is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a predoctoral fellow, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University
The views expressed are personal