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India’s Left & Right think this violence is new. Read diaries of British Raj ICS officers

Violence around cow slaughter and religious processions is not novel in India. Virtually every single ICS officer had to deal with ‘riots’ and ‘law and order problems’.

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The commentariats on both the Left and the Right are having a great time arguing that the current situation in India is something novel and unusual. Violence surrounding cow slaughter and loud processions—I hate to say it—are simply not new. One has to only read the classic The Men Who Ruled India by Philip Woodruff to know that in the days of the British Raj, virtually every single Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer posted to any district had to deal with “riots” and “law and order problems” on account of cows and processions that were accompanied by drums and cymbals. It is a pity that Woodruff’s book is not prescribed reading for IAS and IPS officers today. If that were done, our officials would understand that they belong to a long tradition of frustrated administrators dealing with the thankless task of keeping recalcitrant groups from going after each other. They may even pick up some pointers on how to deal with such situations.

In the days of the Raj, which we wish to confine to a continent of amnesia, the public slaughter of cows almost invariably led to riots and these happened virtually as a routine public occurrence every Eid. Today, there is hardly any public slaughter and hence riots have been converted into attacks on individuals or groups who are suspected of transporting cows or beef. But the so-called “law and order” issues are hardly different.

The “playing of music” as processions wound their way past mosques was another standard reason for riots. While the cow-related and procession-led riots were usually of the Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Sikh varieties, the hapless British officials had to also deal with Muslim-Parsi riots in the wealthy city of Bombay (now Mumbai), Sunni-Bohra riots in Ahmedabad and Bombay, and Sunni-Shia riots in assorted northern Indian cities. Rudyard Kipling’s fictional description of a Sunni-Shia riot in Lahore in one of his classic short stories should also be made compulsory reading for anyone conducting research in the discipline of “riotology”.

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Processions and conspiracy not new

The commentators of the Right today are conjuring up a brand new conspiracy and are noting that the piling up of stones, sticks and even firearms well in advance constitutes proof of a fresh conspiracy. Let me assure them that piling up stones and even the off illegal firearm is also not something new. As far as conspiracies go, the best place to understand their nature is W.W. Hunter’s 1871 book The Indian Musalmans. Another good reference book is Charles Allen’s God’s Terrorists. Actually, if a researcher has the time, all she needs to do is to go through the police files in any Indian province between 1858 and 1947. Virtually every report will mention pre-planning, stockpiling of arms, and so on.

While it is doubtless possible that the Pakistani ISI today is participating in the plans, one should not forget that such things predate the birth of the ISI by many decades. It is, however, true that social media as a tool for planning protests is more recent and probably started with the 2011 Tahrir Square movement in Cairo. But any student of Indian history knows that the Indian ability to create and propagate rumours, prophecies and conspiracies with great celerity also precedes such modern contraptions as the internet.

The commentators on the Left are convinced that deliberately provocative processions started only this year. Their naïveté is breathtaking. Religious processions in India have a tradition going back to remote antiquity. The sculpture panels at so many archaeological sites and on so many temple walls depict people going in processions with great abandon. And in these processions, invariably there are dancers, drummers, pipe-players and sometimes even acrobats. Annual processions of deities are par for the course. One of the oldest continuing ones is the Kallazhagar procession each year from Azhagarkoil to Madurai, which is a distance of several kilometres. The Puri Rath Yatra also seems to have gone on forever.

The attacks on these “provocative” processions when they cross some mosques have also pretty much always been there. It should be kept in mind that so has participation in these processions by several Muslim families and some dargahs. The question is, whether there was deliberate provocation in earlier days. The answer is a simple “yes”. Again, please read the diaries of ICS officers. There are so many mentions of the decibel level of the music being increased just as the processions went in front of mosques. Again nothing new.

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We have survived worse

What about the role of the government? Then, as now, the government can do very little to completely prevent these episodes of violence. All that a District Police Officer can do is to keep extra police on duty on the days of religious festivals, which are all too common in our country and then try to control the situation when the riot happens. The best efforts to plan procession routes and timings while occasionally yielding success, are rarely completely efficacious.

The other issue that today’s Left commentariat is concerned about is swift moves like demolitions. Again, there are ample precedents for this. If anything, not being subject to the constraints of a democratic republic, British officials had no compunction in imposing draconian collective fines on whole communities, groups and neighbourhoods. It is not as if British officials had a need to be partial to any group, and in matters of law and order, they rarely were. But their standard operating procedure seems to have been to go in for dramatic gestures in order to at least lower the probability of future occurrences. It remains to be seen if current dramatic gestures work better or worse than the collective fines of the past. Given the requirements of contemporary constitutionalism, it might work or it might boomerang. Mind you, no British official ever believed that the problem of “riots” could or would ever completely go away and neither should we.

Violence and riots are bad. But they are endemic to our society, as they are to many societies. It is best for all observers not to make the impossible case that the current ones are uniquely conspiratorial or cataclysmic. We have survived worse. This too shall pass. But one cannot end this column without reiterating the suggestion to our IAS and IPS officers that they should read the diaries of their ICS predecessors!

Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.

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