Riot Politics

Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State

January 2012 9781849041362 320pp
Temporarily out of stock


On 27 February 2002, fifty-eight people died when a train coach caught fire just outside a small-town railway station in Gujarat, Western India. The incident marked the beginning of one of the worst outbursts of Hindu-Muslim violence since India’s independence. As marauding mobs thronged the streets of Gujarat’s cities and villages, local and state-level politicians aided and abetted the violence by making inflammatory speeches, distributing weapons and restraining the police — who often sided with the state’s majority Hindu inhabitants — from intervening to stem the bloodshed, which claimed the lives of over two thousand people.

Based on an extensive ethnographic study of Gujarat’s local politics, Riot Politics offers a novel approach to understanding the processes that foster outbursts of communal violence in India. Berenschot argues that the difficulties that especially poorer citizens face when dealing with state institutions underlie the capacity and interests of political actors to instigate and organise communal violence. As the reader is led into the often shadowy world of local politics in Gujarat, the author reveals how the capacity and willingness of various types of rioters — from politicians, local criminals, Hindu-nationalist activists to neighbourhood leaders and police officials — to organise and perpetrate violence is closely related to the different positions these actors hold in the patronage networks that provide access to state resources.


‘An exciting new study of the relationship between political mediation and violence in Gujarat, this work is ethnographically rich, well written and theoretically ambitious’. — Professor Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University

‘The 2002 genocidal violence in Gujarat has remained partly unexplained. Focusing on the city of Ahmedabad, Ward Berenschot’s book throws new light on these events, drawing on unique fieldwork emphasising the role of grassroots leaders. This is a remarkable addition to the literature on communalism in India.’ — Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow, CNRS, CERI Sciences Po and author of Religion, Caste and Politics in India

‘Outbursts of communal violence in India are often portrayed as aberrations, as moments of collective madness interrupting a lively liberal democracy. Nobody can maintain that position after having read Ward Berenschot’s meticulously researched and robustly argued study of local politics and violence in Gujarat. Berenschot demonstrates that organizing, preparing and imagining communal violence — real or potential — is endemic to the way democracy, identity and political power functions at the level of neighborhoods and streets in India’s economic powerhouse. A must read for anyone interested in the political sociology of violence.’ —  Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University

‘This volume provides a rich ethnographic account of the modus operandi of grass roots political actors in communal (ethnic) violence. Berenschot provides an insight into everyday politics and the state in Gujarat, India. Highly useful for students of Indian politics and society.’ — Ghanshyam Shah, National Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study

‘Communal riots are part of the social history of Gujarat, but with the rise of political Hinduism the social fabric became torn apart more viciously. Ward Berenschot has focused his fieldwork on the political machine of metropolitan Ahmedabad and explains from an anthropological perspective how the neighbourhood-based agents of the commanding party heights tried to segregate people on the basis of their religious identity but were not always successful. His excellent study shows that communalism is a political act rather than a state of mind.’ —  Jan Breman, Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow at Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research

‘Berenschot focuses on the inability of the government to deliver normal services as the key element of the pathology he is describing. The ‘solution’ he describes, however, creates a vicious circle: the last thing politicians want is for state institutions to be able to serve their customers without ‘customised’ political intervention.The human relationships he sketches are all too believable, and his account is a must-read for anyone trying to understand how democratic government in a poor country works in practice.’ — Survival

‘Scholarship such as Berenschot’s ethnography of what we may characterize as “riot culture” assumes a significance far beyond the academy. It helps to bring to the fore the mutually enabling relationship of modern hate and the modern state: two entities with which the citizens of democratic India, as much as any other nation in the world today, must familiarize themselves to a far greater extent than they might have hoped a few decades ago, at the time of the founding of their new republic.’ – Ananya Vajpeyi, The New Republic

‘The uniqueness of the book is the insight the author provides about the locality and life of the urban working class . … The narratives he excavates are a result of an ethnographic approach he meshes well with his extensive reading of available literature. The book has earned the plaudits that it proudly displays on its dust jacket.’  — Joseph Mathai, Indian Express

‘Riot Politics goes into the nitty-gritty of riots and explores what goes into their actual organisation, instigation and mobilization. … Based on fieldwork and extensive research, it gives the reader an insight into the growth and sustenance of identity politics from the grass roots level in Gujarat and politicisation of social divisions. It is a grim reminder on an ignoble chapter in free India’s history.’ — M. K. Chandra Bose, Deccan Herald

Riot Politics makes important contributions to the field of ethnic violence by going beyond what we know from earlier scholars. … Berenschot’s research attests to the flexibility of ethnography as an investigative method that political scientists can use to great effect. It may be welcomed as an example worth emulating for political scientists working within the American academy.’ – Mona G. Mehta, India Review

‘Berenschot’s key argument is that local patronage politics creates a network of dependence and obligation that can be used when instigating riots. He shows how riots are carefully organised and favours are called in. … This is an original and important book, valuable both for its intervention in the debate over causes of political violence and its contribution to the study of everyday politics in contemporary India.’ — Commonwealth and Comparative Politics


Ward Berenschot is a political scientist and a researcher at Leiden University, specialising in identity politics and local democracy in India and Indonesia.

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