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Pogrom, genocide & ethnic cleansing: What these mean and how they differ from each other

After the recent communal riots in Delhi, these three words have frequently appeared in news headlines and on social media.

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New Delhi: Ever since communal riots broke out in Delhi Sunday killing 38 people and injuring over 150, the violence has been described across news and social media as a ‘pogrom’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and even ‘genocide’.

But what do these three words really mean? All three, for one, refer to state-sanctioned violence — it’s just a matter of varying degrees.

A pogrom refers to large-scale destruction of a particular minority as state authorities look on, if not encourage it. A genocide is more systematic and involves incarceration and quiet execution. Ethnic cleansing is a more umbrella term but refers to efforts to ethnically homogenise a geographical area through forceful displacement, mass killings or both.

ThePrint explains the terms and their implications.

Also read: What’s Lalita Kumari case? SC verdict judge Muralidhar held up as model for Delhi Police

Pogroms aren’t just big riots

The word pogrom comes from the early 20th century Russian word ‘gromit’, that literally translates as ‘devastation’. It is defined as “a mob attack, either approved or condoned by authorities, against the persons and property of a religious, racial, or national minority”.   

These acts are not spontaneous and state authorities look on as they are committed, if not actively encourage them. Perpetrators also usually harbour bloodthirst and vengeance. The goal is to not only destroy the target group but their material values too. 

Anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1921 did just that. Christian populations not only murdered Jews but also committed large-scale rape and looting of property while“civil and military authorities remained neutral and occasionally provided their secret or open support”.  

But pogroms are not just riots. Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science, Brown University and author of the highly-acclaimed book ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India’, explains that pogroms require (a) the state looking on while the target group is attacked and (b) the state ideologically condoning violence.

He shows this by comparing the 1984 anti-Sikh violence and 2002 Gujarat riots. The former was celebrated by Hindu organisations like VHP and RSS but the ruling Congress party never developed an anti-Sikh ideology afterward.

The 2002 Gujarat violence, however, is a “purer” form of a pogrom, he writes. This is because even after looking on while mobs killed Muslims, the state government adopted an anti-Muslim ideology.

Also read: Why Northeast Delhi violence is India’s first Hindu-Muslim riots with guns  

How genocide is different 

Genocide goes a step further than pogroms. It comes from the Greek word “genos” which means ‘race’, and the Latin suffix “-cide” which means ‘killing’. 

It is defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.” 

It is also “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group”.   

The term was first coined in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in response to the Nazi Holocaust. Two years later, it was deemed an international crime and according to the United Nations’ Article II on genocide, these are the acts that qualify.  

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The holocaust isn’t the only genocide. 

Native Americans faced genocide in North America at the hands of local European militias. From 1622 to the 19th century, their numbers dwindled from about 5-15 million to less than 2,38,000.

A more recent example is the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The Tutsi community was slaughtered by the dominant Hutus in the country. The death toll was 8,00,000 including both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Bodily mutilation through the use of machetes and wide-scale sexual assault in Rwanda very much changed the face of genocide

Also read: ‘Inaccurate, misleading’: India says US panel’s comments aimed at politicising Delhi riots

What’s ethnic cleansing

Ethnic cleansing has not been recognised as an independent crime under international law, probably because there is no precise definition. However, the end goal is to establish an ethnically homogeneous territory, even if it means using genocide as a method.

It is defined as “the mass expulsion or killing of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another.” 

It is also defined as “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups” that may involve “the destruction of monuments, cemeteries, and houses of worship.” 

The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “… rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area”. 

The term comes from the Serbo-Croatian phrase “etničko čišćenje”. This was during the disintegration of Yugoslavia where Bosniaks, Serbs, and ethnic Albanians faced brutal treatment. Both forceful displacement and mass killings took place. 

Also read: Two SITs set up to probe Delhi communal riots, DCP barred by poll body to head one

What about the crackdowns on Rohingyas and Uyghurs?

Since pogrom, genocide and ethnic cleansing largely overlap, it’s difficult to classify certain crackdowns like those on Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims or on Chinese Uyghurs. 

Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims seems like a combination of all three. It began in 2017, killing almost 10,000 and forcing more than 700,000 to flee the Rakhine state. Thousands have been raped and nearly 300 villages “burnt to the ground”. In fact, civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently denied accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice. 

The ongoing Uyghur conflict seems to fall under ethnic cleansing and some have called it “cultural genocide”. Based on leaked Chinese documents and accounts of escapees, China has been conducting mass detention of the minority group in Xinjiang ever since ethnic riots broke out in 2009. Approximately 1 million Uyghurs have been detained. 

Also read: There’s fear, grief and dejection after Delhi riots but Shaheen Bagh resolves to protest on


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