John Dayal


Has India learnt any lessons from the recent riots that savaged the United Kingdom early in August? The British Government and its police seem to be in a state of denial of the root causes that led to the violence, but there are lessons in it for India, and for that matter, for its neighbours in south Asia which are, or will soon be, forced to think about the after-affects of an entirely unregulated march of global capital under the guise of liberal economic policies, and the refusal of the government to play its role as a nurturer and protector in a welfare state. With six thousand communal riots, and hundreds of other incidents of mass violence, India must do some thinking. It is important to look at the British riots.


The first impressions across the globe were ‘how terrible is the BBC coverage when it comes to riots happening in London’. Those who have all their lives banked on the venerable “Beebe “saw amateur camera panning all over streets and buildings in a haze of smoke and flames, the images jerky with the panic of the persons wielding the lens. The reporters, out of their depth, were panting “Oh my God, I have never seen anything like this in my life.” They had not. Most of those reporters were too young to have seen London and other towns afire in the race riots of the 1980s.


These riots had caught them unawares, as it had surprised the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron, who was on a vacation in Italy [where he famously failed to tip a bargirl, and had to apologize later].


Ironically just before  his vacation, he had before an audience of world leaders in Munich disowned  Britain’s much-wonted policy of multiculturalism, saying it was an “outright failure” and partly to blame for fostering Islamist extremism. The UK, he said, “needs a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to extremism.“ State multiculturalism had encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong,” Cameron said. For good measure, he added that the  “hands-off tolerance” had encouraged Muslims and other immigrant groups “to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.”


It was not Islamic fundamentalists or Al Qaida cells which had lit the fire. This time around, it was not issues of race or religion that triggered the violence, but common counts of abject poverty and deprivation in the inner cities, and the state’s failure to reach out with sympathy to an increasing number of the victims of the economy, now facing a second meltdown. The trigger, in hindsight, was a thoughtless “dirty harry’ police shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, at Ferry Lane, Tottenham.  Reports said the death occurred during an operation where specialist firearm officers and officers from Operation Trident, the unit which deals with gun crime in the African and Caribbean communities, were attempting to carry out an arrest on 4th August.


Duggan was a passenger in a minicab and was shot after an apparent exchange of fire. A police officer’s radio is later found to have a bullet lodged in it, but there was no evidence that Duggan had fired a weapon. Riots began when family and friends of the victim complained that the police were showing no eagerness in investigating his death and identifying the guilty policemen.


On the night of Aug. 8, a group of hooded youths ran up the street throwing trash bins while others stomped on the top of police patrol cars. Still others shattered through glass phone booths and set cars on fire. In the three days that followed the initial riots in Tottenham, youth across England had put the government and police on notice in a evening and night-time orgy of arson and stone pelting which spread to Nottingham and then to Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.


The urban warfare totally exposed the police, its morale still not recovered from the recent exposes of its involvement at the highest level with News of the World and big business. The top brass of the police  had to quit because of their wining and dining with phone hackers of Murdoch’s news empire. This time, their orders from the Cameron government are for ruthless action. The forces on the ground have been trebled. Prime Minister Cameron ordered the enlarged police forces to use the water canon on rioters, while the acting Metropolitan police chief warned he would catch the culprits and bring them before a court.. Nationwide, police have now made more than 2,000 arrests. Officially, four persons have been killed. One of them was a Pakistani whose father, in a poignant speech, forgave the killers, and called for unity of all people. Scores of shops and buildings have been looted and gutted. The injured also number in the hundreds, with at least two deaths in the riot areas. Businesses say their losses have been ruinous.


There are still no signs if the government has understood the gravity of the crisis and the socio-economic causes underpinning it, and has a plan of action to not just restore instant peace, but heal the deep-seated anger.

British social scientist and author Ron Boyd-Macmillan, who arrived in India even as London was burning, told Tehelka there was no doubt “inner city deprivation had led to the violence. In the economic policies followed by a succession of governments, the people living in the inner cities – people of Caribbean origin as much as poor among the Whites — had been totally ignored. There was no investment in their education. They felt they had been disowned by society, if partly by their own choice. A lot of the urban youth were angry that they did not belong to society.”


Boyd-MacMillan said elements of these subclasses had been criminalized in recent times. It speaks for the real quality of the police that they had little intelligence on these developments, focused as they were on the political watch on Islam.


There is also emerging evidence, he said, that the riots were very well organized, either in deliberate outside organization or through contemporary social networks.


At the end of the day, the physical poverty in the by-lanes and tenements remains a tinderbox. The poverty in Great Britain’s politics provides the short fuse.  And there are no indications that the government, long on rabblerousing rhetoric and short on political acumen will be able to set up policies and structures to not just defuse the tension, but provide that long-term growth and human dignity which the people, in their twin identities as  arsonists and victims are seeking.


In a not so curious development, the Muslim Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities and the Hindu and Sikh Indian communities, each living in not so rich suburbs of Greater London were gloating that they kept their youth out of the riots. Worse, in a manner of speaking, they had also prepared their own vigilante gangs to protect their mosques and their gurudwaras. This would seem a typical British divide-and-rule policy. It is a moot question if this will integrate them with the local population, or further distance them from the white and the blacks.


This, the behaviour of Non-Resident Indian and People of Indian/South Asian Origin, is an area of study for social scientists and psychologists at home, especially those trying to understand the appeal of Hindutva in expat communities. In India, Hindutva elements call upon Christians and Muslims to join the “mainstream” as if they had not been part of the local culture, language and customs, differing only in the God they worshipped. The Indian origin person abroad refuses, and very aggressively so, to mix with the local western cultural milieu, owing his absolute loyalty to “Mother India”.  They are the ones, by the way, who fund the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh back in India.


In the post riot situation, there has been some deeper analysis substantiating the assessment made earlier by Roy Boyd-MacMillan. Young people of Caribbean, Asian and white origin were interviewed and there were fierce confrontations in TV studios between older people and them.


Many of the young people of 14 had a reading age of seven, had no stake in the system, feared competition from immigrants and didn’t care about anything as they felt ‘warehoused’ or dumped. “Parental authority had vanished in many homes, children couldn’t even be slapped as young people had been empowered over the years — one young person said that if a mother had slapped her daughter at the police station for being involved in the riots at the police station, she would have been charged by the police! Many had grown up in single-parent homes. There was no positive male authority in the home, Roy has also said.


“Failing schools. Failing families. Failing social structures. Failing economies. The youth who never were able to learn how to work hard and cross over to where their effort was valued,” an analyst said.


The Church too has seen part of the malaise.  It has long ceased to be a part of the life of the people. But it does see where the problem lies. The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has condemned England’s education system in the wake of this week’s riots, for abandoning its duty to teach children “virtue, character and citizenship”. He said state schooling had focused too much on creating pupils who would grow up to be “consumers” and “cogs” in an economic wheel.  Dr Williams said the riots represented “a breakdown of the sense of civic identity, shared identity, shared responsibility “One of the most troubling features of recent days has been the spectacle of not only young people, but even children of school age, children as young as 7 taking part in the events we have seen,” he said.


The immediate political and physical response of the government has been politically naïve and mechanically brutal. The police eventually quenched the fires in the shops and the tenements, but it is a moot question how the Cameron government will restored confidence, and bring in the much needed development and injecting of resources in the inner cities of England now crowded with the deprived and the angry.


The first lesson India has to learn is that globalization, an entirely unchecked liberalization and a succumbing to capital and corporate interests without commensurate concern about the common people leads to a great torsion in society. Racism is not much of a issue in India, but communalism, the plight of the minorities, dalits and tribals is a rapidly emerging issue. The data from the Planning Commission shows that these communities have not kept pace with the growth, in economy, education, health, even nourishment, compared with the so called huge middle class, and with other communities in urban areas. The pauperization in the countryside, the plight of the landless peasantry and the mass migration to the towns and cities, often for petty jobs or manual street labour, creates islands of absent penury and dismay.


The protests in Orissa over land acquisition for Posco, or in West  Bengal and against the Special Economic Zones across the country, are an early warning of a great unrest that is brewing without the government showing any awareness towards it. The tension in and around the National Capital Region, Gurgaon, Noida and Greater Noida, Faridabad and similar townships is another early warning. It is not just that the famers and peasantry are loath to give up their land. They feel cheated that the same land is sold at a profit to the developers who then make huge profits by selling flats and apartments to the teeming middle classes who suddenly have the money but not the base which they can call home. As a matter of fact, the middle classes themselves are deprived of these roots. It is anyone’s guess if the land agitation will not spread across the country with disastrous results. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural employment scheme, NREGA, remains a short term sop, and that too beset with rampant corruption.


It is now clear to the meanest intelligence that much of India has not benefited from the last twenty years of globalization and liberalization. The nine per cent rate of growth has to be counterpoised with the inflation in food prices. Education is fast becoming a preserve of the rich, with only a badly planned and badly financed basic education coming to the share of the poor and the marginalized in the guise of the Right to Education.. The right to food, now in the shape of a Bill to be moved in Parliament, but which is already being dismissed as too little too alter, offers very little hope for the poor in the immediate future.


In the Plan, the government has shown no indication that is concerned in a real sense with the vast slums that have come up in all cities where the poor live in conditions not fit for animals.  Instead of pumping money to ensure a fair life to these people, with opportunities of education, government is playing with paper projects such as the Unique Identity UID schemes and short term employment projects that fall between the two stools of subsidies and cash transfer to the needy. The differences within the Congress party and within the government on such issues, and the total lack of  accord with the opposition parties gives little hope of  concerted national policy that will create conditions to  narrow down the deep divide between the haves and the have-nots.


The police and the media have also not learnt a single lesson in the last quarter of a century. Satellite TV channels, and regional print and electronic media that ape them, are finding common minimum denominators that once again cater to the middle class or the; lower middle class. They do not bring the spotlight to focus on the really poor who may not be their readers and viewers, but who none the less exist on the margins of society and  look with frustration on the events in their neighborhood or the community television.


One thing that the poorest of the poor now seem to share with their counterparts in the West is social networking. Face book may not be the rage in rural India, but the mobile handset is very much visible in the hand of the young and the old in the villages and slums. What will happen if people start using these communication facilities to knit the slum dwellers and the villagers, the starving millions, into a semblance of unity? It is plausible to construct scenarios where the march of thousands in Nandigram or the hundreds in Noida can grow a hundred fold to surround national and state capitals demanding redress. Policy makers need to wake up to this scenario.


Lastly of course is the global illiteracy of the police force in dealing with people’s protests without bursting in a military excess in which the water canon is the most benign weapon, and the gun the most final. The police in India does not see itself as s social structure, or a wing of the government that can reach out to the por. Despite thirty years of the Dharam Vira Commission on Police reforms, police forces remain representatives of a imperial power which they actually were before Independence.


The post-liberalization situation is crying out for police reforms, which seem nowhere on the horizon. There seems to a political conspiracy involving the ruling and opposition parties that the police, specially its armed wings, need remain rooted in their colonial past as instruments of force to protect the state and the ruling class. India could in the short future see riots much worse than those of London, riots not between religious communities, or caste groups, but in the rebellion of the marginalized and the poor. This is the time to take social and economic development delivery measures which will prevent a rising of the poor — or poverty riots as described in the United Kingdom.


(August 26, 2011)

Top - Home