Collective Violence and the Making of Civil Society: India in European Perspective

  • Subrata K. Mitra (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Are riots, risings and revolutions acts of collective madness, or are they political events, offering a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a system, laying bare the legitimacy deficit that moves rational men and women to kill and die? Fun, profit, peer pressure, or moral outrage - which of these is the main motive of rioters? Is collective violence a form of violent participation, which, in the final analysis, acts as the midwife of civil society? The full investigation of these general and comparative questions is beyond the scope of my paper. Still, they provide the main inspiration for the empirical analysis undertaken here. The paper develops a model of conflict resolution based on countervailing powers, the symbolic recognition of memories of violence, and new institutional arrangements. This framework is used for the analysis of three identity-related issues from post-independence Indian politics. Two of these have been successfully resolved where as attempts to resolve the third have been less successful. Drawing on the contributions of Natalie Davis (1973), Ian Gilmour (1992) Pierre Nora (1989) and Simon Schama (1989) to collective violence and the foundation of civil societies in the west, the paper characterises the outbreak of pogroms, riots, and other forms of collective violence as political phenomena that indicate deeply seated conflicts over the core values of a society. How these conflicts are solved has important implications for the establishment of an institutional framework that promotes a society based on interpersonal trust, respect of individuals and groups, orderly rule and the rights of expression and association. Scholarly interest in the role of violence in accelerating social change has gone out of fashion since the general diffusion of utopian ideas like democracy, social capital and world governance in western liberal democracies. The insistence of donors in the North and their clients in the South on these canons as the only modes of correct political behaviour has consequence for transitional societies of the South that are far from benign. Newcomers to the high table of states and nations, these candidate-members must earn this privilege by subjecting their political conduct to the rules laid down by the members of the club who conveniently overlook the tortuous path they themselves have had to take to reach their current institutional forms. By the same logic, scholarly inquiries into riots, pogroms, insurgencies and other forms of political unrest in non-western societies must conform to a prescribed code of conduct by first condemning their subject before engaging in an analysis of the social process that has led to its outbreak. The liberal bias, often accompanied by the failure to situate the collective violence in its context, results in the blatant characterisation of these political acts as bizarre, perverse or simply as the proof of the cultural incapacity of the societies where they occur to sustain civilised norms in public life. Such a failure of imagination and empathy would, in an academic debate, be risible if its costs in terms of avoidable suffering were not so immense. It is not my intention in this paper to engage in cultural one-upmanship, nor to exonerate human suffering in terms of cultural idiosyncrasy. Instead, the paper focuses on the origin and demise of collective violence, meted out by one group against another for the sheer reason of their difference. I maintain in this paper that the best chance for the creation of a civil society out of the wreckage of collective violence consists in grounding one's analysis of its origin firmly in the social and historical context, and keeping the scholarly inquiry as close to the actors as possible. Though India is the main empirical context for this paper, the analysis of Indian data undertaken here draws on European examples of collective violence partly to establish parameters for historical comparison, but also to generate analytical space for institutional arrangements that have led to the creation of civil societies in the West where much blood has been shed on account of religious differences.


India; Collective Violence; Civil Society; Political Science; Comparative Politics