Are riots in India on the rise? Or are they falling?

A glance at the recently released crime numbers, released after a long delay by the NCRB, suggests that the rate of rioting went up sharply in 2017 compared to the year-ago period.

A closer look at the data suggests that this may be a misleading picture because of issues with the NCRB data, beginning with the definition of riots itself. The 2017 figure for offences against public tranquillity, for instance, is a composite measure of rioting which includes riots and other riot-related offences such as unlawful assembly, promoting enmity among groups and affray (fighting among a group of more than two people). Crucially, the equivalent figure in 2016 (and in 2015 and 2014) excluded affray while the previous years (2006 to 2013) included affray. By adjusting for affray for 2014-2017 (by assuming the same proportion of affray-related riots as in 2017), the rate of rioting actually falls from 2016.

The adjusted riots rate shows a peak in 2014, a slight decline in 2015, and a sharper correction in the riots rate since then. The adjusted rate also takes into account more recent population estimates compared to what NCRB does. As a previous Plain Facts column had highlighted, NCRB still uses population projections based on the 2001 census. The adjusted riots rate computed by Mint takes into account the latest population projections of the UN, based on 2011 census figures.

The broad trend at the national level differs slightly according to our estimates. Average riot rates have increased slightly from 59.4 (per million population) during 2012-14 to 59.9 during 2015-17 but NCRB figures show a decline from 60.7 to 59.7 over the same period.

At the state-level there are bigger differences although the best and worst states in terms of rioting remain unchanged. The adjusted riots rate is the highest for Kerala and Haryana. Over the past decade, Kerala has usually been among the states with highest rioting rates partly due to the state’s tradition of frequent protests and higher police reporting of riots in the state.

Haryana was rocked by several riots instigated by the rape conviction of the religious leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda and during the Jat agitation for reservation, explaining why it ranked among the worst-hit states in 2017.

Another measure of riots is the number of people affected by them and, on this measure, Tamil Nadu (victim rate per million population - 241.5) and Kerala (209.5) were the states that suffered the most while Punjab (0.58) and Mizoram (3.3) suffered the least.

In Kerala, a significant source of riots was the violence that emerged from labour-related strikes (around 28% of all riot-related offences have this listed as a cause). In principle, every riot case should be categorized as such by its cause. But in practice, this categorization is often not done. Between 2014 and 2017, the data suggests that communal and caste-based riots have decreased. But the bulk of riots have traditionally been bucketed under the others category (for instance, 82% of all riots in 2016 had causes classified as ‘others’). Perhaps to address this, the 2017 report introduces several new causes of riots, such as land, family and electricity disputes.

These new categories account for around 45% of all riots in 2017 with land disputes (20%) and family disputes (6%) featuring prominently. But even with these new categories 42% of riots remained vaguely defined as “other causes".

All these numbers, though, could still be under-estimates of the true extent of rioting in India. Beyond the inconsistencies in definitions, NCRB data in India has long faced an issue of under-reporting, as a committee of the statistics ministry had noted in a 2011 report.

Pooja Dantewadia contributed to this piece