A strange fire

Why the Muzaffarnagar riots were a departure from past trends.

In several respects, the recent communal violence in Muzaffarnagar had the classic features of a riot. The immediate cause appeared to be the stalking or harassment of a "girl" by young men of another community, a common trope in riots. There is a dispute about whether this harassment, or a motorbike collision between individuals of two different communities, led to the killings. Contesting narratives of this sort are also a recurrent feature of riots. Finally, it is said, local politicians made provocative speeches, and loud music blared in front of a mosque at the time of prayer. Music before mosques (or cow slaughter) and inflammatory speeches by political or religious leaders, too, are routinely associated with riots.

But, fundamentally, the Muzaffarnagar riots departed from our existing script of understanding. Over the last 15 to 20 years, ethnic conflict in different parts of the world, including India, has been studied extensively. We know a lot, but no theory could have confidently predicted the Muzaffarnagar riots. We should, of course, note that predictive accuracy is not a good way to judge social science theories. As in biology, social science theories tend to be probabilistic, indicating the odds, not proposing certainties. Just as not everybody who smokes cigarettes would get cancer, though a lot would, social science theories are better at explaining central tendencies, not departures from them. We just can't get the precision of physics.

Nonetheless, we need to understand why the Muzaffarnagar riots were unusual and examine their larger implications. Why were these riots surprising?

First, the Muzaffarnagar riots were mostly rural. While civil wars tend to be rural, riots are primarily urban. Why this is so is aptly summarised by a modern-day classic, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, by Stathis Kalyvas. In civil wars, the insurgents generally attack the sovereignty of the state. They need to hide from the might of the state to attack it well; villages, mountains and forests provide better hideouts for planning and protection than cities. In comparison, rioters attack communities, not the sovereignty of the state. Rioters are armed with lesser weapons, and houses in urban bylanes are a good enough cover.

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