Communal Riots in Gujarat: The State at Risk?

  • Christophe Jaffrelot (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Violence between Hindus and Muslims is a structural given of Indian society. One finds its traces very early in the country’s history, a fact that can drive the analyst to explain the phenomenon by referring to the incompatibility of Hindu and Muslim cultures. However, those historians interested in the phenomenon have always emphasized the economic dimension of the rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, which springs from territorial conflicts or commercial competition. Among sociologists and political scientists, this approach has found favour with many authors more or less inclined to Marxist categories. The interpretation of violence between Hindus and Muslims that I have suggested during the last wave of riots between 1989 and 1992 is very different. This interpretation values the role of politics in two complementary aspects, the ethno-religious ideology and the exploitation of communal issues by political parties. Indeed, research on communal riots in India after 1947 suggests that these riots largely originate from a distorted idea – ideology – of the Other; the Hindu though representing an overwhelming majority, often perceive of the Muslims as a ‘fifth column’ threatening them from within Indian society. And the Hindu nationalist parties, which have codified this ideological pattern, employ it for electoral means in the course of campaigns laying the ground for the outbreak of violence. These parties have, in fact, learned to mobilise Hindus against Muslims on the basis of real or presumed ‘sacred’ issues since the emergence of electoral politics in colonial times. Their goal is to provoke such kinds of riots in order to polarise the electorate along the religious cleavage more effectively. This explanatory model of Hindu-Muslim riots has to be verified again in the light of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Moreover, these riots also commit us to reconfirm the role of the Hindu nationalist party. The latter has to be weighted even more heavily due to the events in Gujarat, for the party held political power in that State. This state of things explains the rather exceptional intensity of the Gujarat riots. Because, this time, communal violence was not so much a reflection of the common logic of communal riots in India, but rather the result of an organised pogrom with the approval of the State acting not only with the electoral agenda in mind, but also in view of a veritable ethnic cleansing. Beyond that, the intensity of the riots has also demonstrated that this kind of violence has triggered a feedback in society even among groups so far less inclined to ethnic nationalism like, for example, the tribals. But there is an effect of yet another political strategy at work, which reminds us of the ideological core of our explanatory model: the more and more thorough diffusion of Hindutva in reaction to a fear of Jihad.


India; Domestic Politics; Gujarat; Communal Riots