Social Violence and Political Authority in India - A Challenge to Human Rights


Between October 31st and November 10th, 1984, India's capital city of Delhi became the focal point of riots against citizens of the Sikh faith. Even the lowest estimate of fatalities in Delhi alone puts the number of Sikh dead at more than 300. Indian human rights workers estimate a death toll closer to 1,000, with further deaths occurring in other north Indian cities.

The most disturbing feature of "the riots, and the subsequent central government's refusal of even the symbolism of a judicial inquiry, is that the events are not in any way unique. They are merely the latest addition to a persistent pattern of non-prosecution in the wake of organized violence against a wide range of politically vulnerable, that is politically expendable, groups. Policy decisions based on short-term political expediency, taken by a variety of governments, have established precedents and expectations that are dangerous for India as a whole, not just for one minority or another. This policy pattern must be confronted as one factor in the escalating scale and frequency of social violence in India.

In India it is already clearly understood that a wide range of conditions prevail in which it is possible to get away with large-scale murder. The results are profoundly destabilizing and demoralizing. A number of India's leading civil liberties and human rights organizations, as well as those of us on the international scene who are in contact with them, are convinced that government has become a partner in a process that is tearing India apart. A few cases described below exemplify this process.


People born into India's hereditary Untouchable castes constitute approximately 15 percent of India's population.(1) On the whole, they are one of the most deprived communities in India. Grossly over-represented in the ranks of landless agricultural workers, rural and urban debt-bondage laborers, and urban slum-dwellers, they are dispersed throughout peninsular India. Nearly 90 percent are villagers. Their literacy rates are only half that of the rest of the population.

For the past several years, official reports of violent attacks against Untouchables have routinely exceeded 10,000 cases each year. According to Indian social workers, a far larger number go unrecorded, buried by collusion between local elites and government officials.(2) One of India's better-known journalists, Sham Lal writing for the Times of India on July 10, 1982, summarized the scene well.

The village of Bangalwa in Bihar is only the latest locale. The place is different but it is a replay of the same bloody drama each time. A murderous gang of armed men, all drawn from the landed castes, descends on a village and mows down a whole lot of Harijans with guns. What is the provocation? Perhaps a mere feeling that the Harijans are getting to big for their boots. Or a desire to teach them how to keep their traps shut and play dumb in courts of law when they are asked to bear witness in cases impugning their betters. The mass killings may be an act of revenge or a mere warning. The insolent message they carry is much the same in either case. The place of the Harijans is at the very bottom of the social ladder in the village, it says, and if they want to save their skin they had better stay where they are.

The political scenario which follows is no less sickening than the drama. Everyone expresses his sense of horror over the spilling of innocent blood. Every party sheds tears for the victims. There is a promise of new security measures. But what does this mean in a society where even the police are infected by the very virus which turns so many members of the so-called higher castes into wild beasts?

This explains the new aggressiveness of the dominant castes everywhere. They have the run of the village scene. They hog most of the gains of development, whether it is easier credit, higher yields from the land or better prices from farm produce. No party wants to stick its neck out in fighting them because this can be highly risky in terms of loss of electoral support…

Towns and cities are no safer than villages. The Untouchable community in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, has some limited economic independence because their "polluting" leather craft forms the basis for small businesses. Many have also asserted cultural independence through conversion to Buddhism. An annual parade in honor of the late Untouchable leader. Dr. Ambedkar, consciously symbolizes all that local elites believe Untouchables should not be - self-assured, non-Hindu and wealthy enough to carry out a parade that equals the public rituals of higher caste citizens. The parade is intensely resented by the higher caste population, and in 1978 conflict triggered a police riot. The police went on a rampage in Untouchable residential areas, killing nine and seriously injuring more than 100, burning homes, and leaving the walls of an Untouchable Buddhist shrine riddled with bullet holes.

According to the 1977-78 official report for the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, an autonomous office of the central government, a report documenting evidence of murder and arson by caste-biased police was immediately filled, but the only result to date has been the transfer of two senior officials. Policemen specifically identified with specific crimes by witnesses ready to testify have never been disciplined or brought to trial, and continue to walk their beats in Agra. Two successive central governments, the Janata coalition and the successor Congress-I, have suppressed release of a parliamentary committee report said to be highly critical of official action during the riot. A judicial inquiry was belatedly convened, but has yet to issue a report on crimes committed in 1978. Untouchables are a minority, and prosecution would be unpopular with constituencies eagerly sought by the major political parties. Decisive inaction was, and continues to be, the politically safest choice. The same logic has shaped the response to a growing chain of urban-centered, anti-Untouchable riots.(3)


Muslims, who compose 11 percent of India's population, have been an even more frequent butt of urban riots. Most Muslims are dispersed in urban pockets scattered across India, though they are also the majority population in the strategic Kashmir Valley. Although Westerners tend to think of Indian Muslims in terms of Mughal splendor, the majority live below India's official poverty line. There is only a thin strata of small businessmen and an even narrower band of affluent elite. All have been especially vulnerable scapegoats for both national frustrations and local tensions.

The fact that many families chose to cast their lot with India when Pakistan was created in 1947 - and that Kashmiri Muslim leaders deliberately chose association with India - is quickly buried in escalating political rhetoric that equates Muslims with anti-national sentiments. Former Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was maneuvered from office in 1984 amidst central government charges of anti-national activity, although the central government refused to specify the charges or present evidence. On a local scale, Muslim business competitors can be eliminated by rioters when the repaired roof of a mosque is ascribed to covert and somehow vaguely illegal "Arab money." Since India's independence, there have been more than 8,000 anti-Muslim riots, and in recent years these have grown in scale and duration.

Meerut, a city 45 miles west of the national capital, was the scene of one such outbreak in 1982. The initial trigger was a personal dispute over ownership of a miniscule plot of land, but behind this lay a history of political competition and escalating tension between local Hindu and Muslim traders. After special days of sporadic fighting, the Provisional Armed Constabulary (PAC) was called in with disastrous results. In three days, 42 Muslims were killed by PAC units. Some homes were burned, others left riddled with bullet hoses. One doctor, who saw his son and nephew shot, was ordered to load their bodies on a PAC truck, and then arrested and jailed. In the wake of the riot, the Prime Minister was reported to have ordered some of the most blatantly anti-Muslim police and civil officials transferred, but reporters later found them still in Meerut on active duty with no further official action contemplated.

The death toll was much higher in the May 1984 riots in Bombay and suburban Bhiwandi, but much of the scenario remains the same. In this case rioting continued for 10 days with an official death toll of 258. Approximately two-thirds were Muslims. In the worst single incident, 27 men, women and children were massacred in one house where they had taken shelter; police arrived only after the carnage, though their aid had been sought hours before. Events during the riots underscored a mare's nest of corruption linking police, bureaucracy and local criminal elements, and raised disturbing questions about the relationship between an overtly anti-Muslim organization, the Shiv Sena, and elected officials. The state government has refused requests that it convene a judicial inquiry.

Strategies for Defense

Similar accounts can be made for many more segments of Indian society. We must recognize that it is precisely the breadth of the pattern that makes it so destructive, not its effect on one minority or another. The structure of Indian society is such that any group can easily become a target for organized violence under conditions in which it is politically easier for central as well as state governments to write off another set of casualties than to press for prosecution.

Citizens who make up the culturally defined groups usually thought of as "Minorities" - Untouchables (15 percent), Muslims (11 percent), adivasis or tribal peoples (7 percent), Sikhs and Christians (4 percent) - make up nearly 40 percent of India's total population. However the remaining 60 percent is itself divided by caste, increasingly bitter class divisions, Hindu sectarian differences and India's profoundly different languages. Hindu businessmen who move from one language region to another commonly trigger resentment that leads to politically protected riot. Throughout the country, influential landlord cliques have become a law unto themselves by building small private armies and buying the cooperation of public officials as they casually defy land reforms and minimum wage laws. Landless agricultural laborers now form more than a third of the rural workforce - in a nation that is still 75 percent rural.(4) Organized landlord violence against those who seek rights "guaranteed" by law has become endemic. Increasingly the victims of landlord violence have raised a new demand - if the state will not or cannot protect them, then the state should at least end discrimination in issuance of gun permits and let them defend themselves.

This demand underlines the crisis facing both state and citizen. As a practical matter, the citizen now has two options. One is armed self-defense. An Untouchable friend, who has settled in the US and remitted money to help his family buy a small farm plot, recently returned to his village and was shaken to find his father and brother routinely taking turns at night standing armed guard on the flat roof of their home. The family was unusual only in having the resources with which to defend itself.

The second strategy, used alone or in combination with the first, is to redouble one's efforts to prove loyalty to local political power brokers. Members of more visible minorities often hope that by serving as conspicuous tokens of minority participation in one political party or another they will earn some measure of protection for themselves, and perhaps for others of their community as well. The affluent can always seek protection by contributing to party coffers - and to corruption. Those who have only numbers to offer can, and do, demonstrate their loyalty by joining politically motivated riots against others.(5)

When we confront conditions like these, it is tempting to escape - and I use that work advisedly - into the world of impersonal abstractions. Thus Indian political authority is the hapless prey of "cultural pluralism," "urbanization," "uneven economic development," etc. Understandably, a growing number of Indians are less willing to sit back and rationalize. They are convinced that unless they can break the linkage between social violence and political authority - a pattern in which social violence is assured of political protection and after-the-fact political absolution - they will witness the destruction of both the nation and democracy. It is this logic that accounts for the growth of nonpartisan civil liberties and human rights organizations in India. It is also the logic that has led several of these groups, which are predominantly non-Sikh, to press for a judicial inquiry into the Delhi riots of 1984 and, even more importantly, for effective prosecution.


(1) Mahatma Gandhi called Untouchables "Harijans." "Scheduled Caste" is a legal term that covers most but by no means all Untouchables. Members of the community who are now active on the international scene use the blunt term "Untouchable" and I follow their example here. For background data, see The Untouchables of India, by Dilip Hiro, revised 1983, MRG No. 26; Untouchable: Voices From a Liberation Movement, a volume of Untouchable writings edited by B.R. Joshi, London: Zed Press, 1985; Whose Law, Whose Order: Untouchables, Social Violence and the State in India, by B, Joshi, Asian Survey, XXII, No. 7, 676-87.

(2) Data is contained in the annual Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Delhi: Government of India), though there has been a hiatus in reports due to prolonged vacancy in this office. Regarding non-reporting, see for example Mobilizing Rural Yagnik by Shalini Randeria and Achyut Yagnik, Economic and Political Weekly. June 11, 1983: 1043-44.

(3) Regarding riots in the Marathwada region of 1978, consult Disturbances in Marathwada Region, the 39th report of the Parliamentary Committee of the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1979. This committee sought but was denied an opportunity to conduct an investigation in Gujarat following the riots of 1981 (personal correspondence from a member of the committee). A report compiled by journalists and members of civil liberties groups is available in Achyut Yagnik and Anil Bhatt: The Anti-Untouchable Agitiation of Gujarat, South Asia Bulletin. IV, No. 1, 45-60.

(4) The figure used here combines the 1981 census categories of "agricultural labourer" with rural data on "marginal workers" who cannot find full time employment, even in the agricultural sector, and are thus excluded from the official "agricultural labour" category.

(5) The pattern is conspicuous in both the 1982 Meerut riot and the 1984 Delhi riots where some of the most vulnerable segments of the Untouchable community were mobilized, in the first instance by activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and by activists of the Congress-I in the second case. See PUCL and PUDR, 1984: Chisti: and Engineer for details.

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