Author:  Dipankar Gupta


(Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, 186 pp., Rs 595, Hard Bound, ISBN 978-0-415-61254-8)


Review by  Mahtab Alam


In modern Indian history, nothing is as frequent as the incidents of communal violence, riots and clashes. Much has been written on the cause and immediate effects of these communal clashes and violence across India but there is hardly any academic literature on the long-term impact and efforts by the victim communities to negotiate a ‘new-normal’. The book under review, Justice before Reconciliation: Negotiating a ‘New Normal’ in Post-riot Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the most recent work by eminent sociologist Dipankar Gupta and longtime researcher on the issues of caste, religion, ethnicity and citizenship, fills that gap. This study, based on extensive field visits of two settings, namely Mumbai and Ahmedabad, seeks to understand the long term effects of ethnic violence in these two settings.


Gupta negates ‘ethnic violence as the forces of nature’ thesis or the more popular Newton’s third law of motion, as described by the Right wing forces in wake of the Gujarat massacre, terming it patently false. He argues that the “people live in impermanent, negotiated arrangements is true, but that does not mean that differences spill out in to the streets on their own accord without a limpid political motive among a set of actors. Ethnic violence in India feeds on the vast symbolic reverse of the partition and the 60-year long boarder conflagration with Pakistan. ” (p. 2) He further agues, “The enormity of a religious clash, such as the one in Gujarat or Mumbai (let us also take the Sikh killings of 1984), leaves little doubt that social relations do not return to an untheorised life world of the status quo ante, or establish a tension free new one ether. There is always a reminder of doubt and misrecognition in all interactions, howsoever repetitive they might be”. (p. 3)


Putting this in a larger perspective, Gupta states that the nation-state, along with its territory and sovereignty, becomes a critical variable in majoritarian attacks on minorities. In the majoritarian perspective, minorities can never be true citizens: “they are either traitors or traitors in the making”. Neither legality nor the niceties of democracy prevent them from targeting minorities who are viewed as enemies of the nation-state. Gupta substantiates this through the portrayal of Muslims in India as agents of Pakistan by the RSS, erstwhile Jan Sangh and now Bharatiya Janta Party on various occasions.


Further articulating how an opposition is built around ‘citizens’ and ‘people’, he says that nation and its memoirs constitute ‘first-order recall’, and therefore we should not be surprised to see the theme of blood and soil dominate ethic and majoritarian movements. Such a valorization of the ‘people’—“the authentic Indians” stands in direct tension with citizenship, which is necessarily inter-subjective in character.


Where the book scores in is providing us with answers to questions such as what happens after these killings, how a new normalcy is created or restored, what are the agencies and practices that herald the coming of another ‘normal’. But since in at least one of the settings (Ahmedabad), the violence was encouraged, if not directly sponsored by the state–this study also seeks to understand, how victims tackle the situation when the state is directly involved in violence. In a first for an academic work, this study also examines the role of NGOs and Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) in in providing resources for relief, repair, and rehabilitation—and in some cases campaign for justice.


While discussing the role of NGOs and FBOs in Gujarat, the author notes that Islamic FBOs were at the forefront of the relief and rehabilitation work in Gujarat. The contribution of other non-faith based NGOs was by comparison low and yet the enormous work done by these FBOs in Ahmedabad, and indeed, in many other parts of Gujarat has received little attention from academics and journalists. In this respect, he notes the vast discrepancy that exists between the field situations and published/Internet information. Gupta warns future scholars not to be swayed by the material available on the Internet, or in books, pamphlets and easily available NGO annual reports, which might lead one to think that most of the relief work was done by NGOs and other voluntary organizations. While information on the contribution of Islamic organizations is particularly non-existent in these sources, “much was written about unity marches that were held by tiny NGOs, some very evanescent ones, with the intention of shoring up minority confidence and creating greater interfaith amity”.(p. 47)


Comparing Mumbai to Gujarat in terms of administrative support for providing justice to the victims, it is said that, while in Mumbai, there were few agencies within the government that were sympathetic to the victims, in Gujarat, on the other hand, not only was there no administrative support, there was downright hostility.


In the third chapter, Gupta prescribes development as safeguard: “(D)elibarate efforts must be made so that Muslim shed their old demographic and occupational specifies and are able to enter the formal sector and government services, access educational facilities and enjoy substantive citizenship. This is not an issue that will resolve itself, nor will it disappear if we turn away. ‘Hard’ developmental issues have to be trained to sort out ‘soft’ developmental features if the trauma of affected Muslims is to be truly addressed. Only then will the ‘new normal’ forget the ‘old normal’ and embrace citizens regardless of religious differences.” (p. 99) However, in the next chapter, he sees justice as the way forward. He observes, “Nothing is clearly evident, nothing has remained the same, either for the perpetrators of violence and even more so, for victims of the ethnic hatred. As far as Muslim survivors are concerned the state is held with greater suspicion than before, though they have begun to interact with it. They see their Hindu neighbours not just in terms of religious distance, keeping in mind some basic ground rules, but now as possible killers too…The number of school dropouts among Muslims has gone up, according to anecdotal evidence. Also, there is a greater concentration of Muslim ghettos in both Mumbai and Gujarat. Finally, we should remember that relation between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat or Mumbai or Bhiwandi have nationwide repercussions. This is why earlier normalcy is restored; the better it will be for all of us. Militancy and hate campaigns will probably die out if the wheels of justice begin to move.” (p. 110)


The study, while it breaks many stereotypes about Muslims and Muslim (read Islamic) organizations, also provides ample grounds for both NGOs and FBOs to take a critical look at their strategies apart from government agencies regarding empowerment and development of Muslim community. The most important recommendation of the 11 policy options for both state and non-state actors he makes is that, “rule of law is adhered to in letter and spirit”. Importantly, he also notes that, fundamentalism is not a threat, as often portrayed and perceived, at least not yet. Hence he suggests that instead of spending energy on weaning Muslims from hardline Wahabis, the attempt should be to provide them with quality schools “so that their young can lead a life with options other than being a labourer or poor technician when they grew up. This is also what most Muslims want”. (p. 149). The study, time and again insists Muslims want justice so that they can be reassured of their status as full citizen, not less than the ‘people’. Though study is limited to only two settings, the situation is not very different at other places.


(Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based Civil Rights’ Activist and Independent Journalist. He can be contacted A slightly longer version of this article has first appeared in the Journal of South Asian History and Culture.)

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