Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Riots happen because we tend to romanticize chaos

As expected after a riot, good journalists are reporting insufferable stories about how Hindus saved Muslims, and Muslims saved Hindus. I dread noble images of a temple and a mosque coexisting peacefully on a single encroached space. Not because these stories are nonsensical, but because they are pointless in understanding a riot, or what will cause the next.

You may say these stories make you feel good. But why should you feel good, and of what use is that? Maybe it is more useful if we try to reach the truth, and go easy on the bull of juxtaposing people in varied costumes and calling it harmony. That is not harmony. Harmony is not coexistence, nor that silly word “tolerance". Harmony is coexistence enforced by the order of a primary thug, like a government.

Would most humans kill other humans if there were no punitive authority? That is a fascinating question, but inessential to the column for now, though it will be interesting to ask yourself what are the crimes you will commit if you are absolutely sure you will get away. What is relevant for the moment is the fact that just a handful of criminals, sadists and other deranged people are enough to create a riot. The rest can hug, it doesn’t make a difference.

The real reason why there are violent riots in India is in our romanticism of chaos. Chaos trains all Indians, from birth, to break rules on public property and to misunderstand that as democratic freedom. A nation born out of civil disobedience never had leaders of stature who deeply believed in civic order. It is the same chaos that lends a righteous edge to disruptive and illegal street agitations, and to a politician so disrespectful of the law that he had the courage to overtly threaten agitators that if they did not clear the way in three days, there would be violence. And it is the same chaos that creates an impotent police force.

If the Delhi Police had pounced on the rioters the way they pounce on an unarmed biker who is not wearing a helmet—eight cops popping out from behind a pillar—there would have been no deaths. But then most cops in Delhi are not equipped to handle anything more serious than a motorist. It is astonishing that they do not actually flee at the first sign of trouble. They would have the moral right to do so. No police force in any civilized democracy looks as impoverished as Indian police. They command no respect, no fear in the eyes of dangerous people. And, as we have seen, they take too long to respond to a riot.

Any way you look at it, humanity is divided into two opposing groups—innate villagers who respect social order more than civic order, and those who are innately urban who respect civic order and have contempt for social order. Villagers don’t always live in villages and citizens don’t always live in cities. India is largely a nation of rustics led by village headmen. Once, when India’s software industry asked for good roads, the chief minister of Karnataka then, H.D. Deve Gowda, threatened them that if they tried to bring global urban values to Bengaluru, he would bring the villages to the city.

India compensates for its chaos in many ways. One is through chaos itself. For instance, the extrajudicial killings of rapists and other dangerous criminals. The other powerful compensation for civic and administrative chaos is through social order.

What maintained relative “harmony" in India after the Gujarat riots of 2002 was the transmission of a fear among Muslims that the next time some criminals among them expressed “rage", the retaliation of criminals on the other side would be severe and disproportionate. Since then, the Muslim community worked hard not to strike an aggressive pose, no matter what the provocation. But somehow, over the past few weeks, activists gave some Muslims in Delhi a false reassurance of modern India’s large heart for their agitations so long as they were “peaceful", another meaningless term. An agitation is not necessarily “peaceful" just because there is no violence. It was ridden with tension. Politicians and activists then said things that provoked Hindus and Muslims alike. We don’t know who cast the first stone; we never know because we have naive definitions of a stone and casting.

What Muslims were protesting, the amended citizenship Act, itself is a product of typical Indian chaos. India does not know its own definition of an Indian citizen, yet it enacted a piece of legislation that would have isolated an unknown number of Indians, probably millions, as foreigners. Why couldn’t India clearly state the set of documents that would prove one’s citizenship so that Indians are not confused about their fate or at least know what they are fighting against? Because India operates through chaos.

Even when the government tried to reform motorists, recently, by imposing huge fines on traffic violations, it did it in a chaotic way. India did not improve its road design or draw fresh medians or build walkways or remove shrubbery blocking traffic signals. Just imposed fines.

At some level, chaos comforts Indians because it is a form of freedom that has been glorified in many simple ways. That pop culture refrain, “We are like that only", for instance. Also, the spurious Indian view that Western civilization is “lonely" in leading orderly lives, while India is a giant carnival. And there is that timeless Indian assurance: “In the end, everything will work out."

Why not in the beginning? That is the question the whole civilization has been unable to answer.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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