Riots have happened time and again in human history.
Tottenham 2011, Godhra 2002, Mumbai (post Babri Masjid) 1992, Los Angeles 1992, Delhi 1984. And this is only a short list over the last 30 years.
The causes of rioting are varied. Discrimination, high unemployment, police brutality, repression, oppression, land rights, religious differences, caste conflict, feudalism, tribalism and a myriad others have been ascribed as causes for riots in different parts of the world at different times. Riots are so commonplace in history that there is an entire lexicon to deal with it. Police riot, prison riot, race riot, religious riot, sports riot, student riot, urban riot and food riot are terms used for specific kind of riots. Most urban police forces have dedicated units to deal with public disorder and riots. The tools of the “anti-riot” trade often include water cannons, tear gas, plastic bullets, batons, rubber bullets, attack dogs and pepper spray.
Among the earliest laws passed against rioting was the Riot Act of 1715 in England that remained in force till 1967 (from which comes the phrase “read the riot act”). In India, Section 153 and 153 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which date back to 1860, deal with the incitement to riot—“whoever malignantly or wantonly, by doing anything which is illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause offence of rioting be committed, shall if offence of rioting is committed in consequence of such provocation shall be punished with imprisonment…”
In recent times we have witnessed several riots, big and small, in India. The well publicized industrial violence at Maruti’s Manesar factory, the Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam, riots by lawyers in Bangalore and others. Like the ones in Manesar and Assam, riots often simmer for a while before exploding. Much has been written about Manesar and the testy relationship between contract workers, regular workers and management at the Maruti plant. A recent article in Mint by Amrit Raj and Shally Seth Mohile sums up the Manesar incident thus, “what is becoming clear is a picture of a hard-nosed and cost-focused management; legions of temporary workers without the benefits enjoyed by their tenured colleagues who sometimes did the same work; low wages that couldn’t keep pace with soaring inflation; a trade union movement gone wrong; an ecosystem in which nearly everyone other than the temporary workers had a stake; and, of course, that usual suspect, the country’s antiquated labour laws”. The history of the Bodo-Muslim conflict in Kokrajhar in Assam is rooted in land. The conflict traces its origins to the time when the British brought adivasis from the Chota Nagpur plateau to Assam, putting them to work in tea gardens and assigning them small parcels of land in exchange. Seventy years ago, settlers from East Bengal started arriving there. The Bodos—local tribals—now found themselves fighting for control of land against adivasis brought by the British, and Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh. By the mid-1970s, conflict lines were clearly drawn between the communities. Student politics, militant groups and arms added fuel to the tension. Large numbers of people have been displaced, sparking charges of ethnic cleansing.
The periodic recurrence of riots and their varied proximate causes often leads to complacency that acts of rioting, in a country and at a moment in time, may not be connected to one another. This may be a dangerous conclusion.
Riots expand to occupy a vacuum. A single riot may be local in cause and origin. A string of them usually reflects a deeper societal angst and fills a gap in public order. This vacuum is created, most often economically, when there is low growth, high inflation, widespread corruption and high unemployment. Following years of repression, the trigger for the “Arab Spring” is widely believed to have been food price inflation. In India today, we can no longer avoid the link between stagflation, corruption, lack of reform and a breakdown in social order. The tendency both at the Union and the state government level is to appease this with more public spending and handouts. What appears to be short-term balm to the wound is malignant in the long term because it stokes inflation. And inflation is cancerous and riot producing.
In India, we are still in the beginning stages of a “string of riots”. If we remain wishy-washy in our economic response and continue to focus on spending rather than the enabling conditions for enterprise and employment creation, we run the risk of severe public disorder. A single riot can be managed and controlled by police and paramilitary forces, as is now the case in Assam. A string of riots is flirting with civil war. Should we charge our inflationist political leaders under Section 153 of the IPC?
P.S. “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility,” said Martin Luther King Jr.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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