Book review: Chemistry and geography of Gujarat riots decoded

Keeping The Peace
Raheel Dhattiwala's analysis of the target spaces chosen and behaviour of violators confirm that the riots were not random outbursts but well planned attacks.
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Book: Keeping The Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002, Author: Raheel Dhattiwala, Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Pages: 170, Price: Rs 695

The French village of La Chambon is celebrated for giving shelter to many a thousand Jews during World War II. What made the village a safe haven amidst the violent chaos is its isolated geographic location- a characteristic strategized to the best advantage.

A Muslim resident of a slum in Ahmedabad says- “jadoo naqshe ka hai”- the magic lies in the map; the magic of the geographic layout prevents even the most invasive forms of violence from crossing his slum’s boundaries.

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In her book ‘Keeping The Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002’ Raheel Dhattiwala quotes the aforementioned Muslim resident and many others to reveal how space and geographic layout contributes towards determining violence and peace.

Set in the context of the outrageous episodes of ‘H-M’, as the Ahmedabad locals in her book refer to Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the book offers a novel take on the infamous riots examining why some places in a city, or even in the same electoral constituency, remained relatively peaceful while others were caught in raging forms of destructive violence.

Dhattiwala directed the research intrigued by this surprising phenomenon- “Is it by chance or can they be explained?” Explain, she does. Dhattiwala formulates that apart from larger political decisions taken at the state and constituency level, individual citizen behaviour and spatial configuration too promotes or inhibits violence.

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Comparing Ram Rahim Nagar, a slum in Ahmedabad, which has a record for being peaceful and promoting ethnic solidarity between the Hindu-Muslims, with adjacent slums which experienced varied intensities of violence in 2002, she looks at how individual agency and spatial configuration entwine to promote peace or violence.The familiarity with the ethnographic demography of a particular slum and its neighbour, the interconnecting roads and lanes, boundary walls, etc., is crucial in targeting areas to ensure success and personal safety, her respondents who were involved in the riots confirm.

Attacks in Naroda Patiya’s one zone was limited due to the very narrow lanes which prevented the attackers from entering the slum wherease in the other zone a massive pit claimed more lives than gunshots and attacks. “Spatial configuration acted as a source of opportunity or restraint.”

Her analysis of the target spaces chosen and behaviour of violators confirm that the riots were not random outbursts but well planned attacks. Contrary to popular assumption, intense violence was unleashed against Muslims in those constituencies where the BJP faced strong opposition rather than in those where it was either weak or well established.

Hence, it is understandable how surprisingly more Muslims are volunteering for the party, as a means to protect them from further violence and also from “ assertions of anti-national activity”- another facet indirectly explored in the book which offers an interesting take on how the party is using violence to ensure votes.

Spatial configuration for the author is a “combination of physical environment and population distribution of the target group.”

Thus, she also looks into how unofficial agencies, like ‘mandals’ or the ‘don’ of Ram Rahim Nagar, help in maintaining peace and how the Hindu-Muslim residents today engage in superficial cordiality with each other, to maintain peace. At the same time in other slums, walls and lanes are used as boundaries to demarcate between the two groups- using segregation as a tool to maintain peace, she finds.

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Dhattiwala’s journalistic competence is revealed through the copious personal accounts of victims, rioteers, witnesses, officials, peacekeepers etc., amassed and quoted diligently apart from the numerous maps, figures, reports, images, and blueprints of neighbourhoods she studied, strengthening her assumptions. The absence of many vital official records that inhibited the research reaffirms the deliberate carelessness of the government, already accused of having played a role in promoting the violence. Her detailed account of the sources used for the study, the methodology and limitations make her a researcher well aware of the accountability of her work. She also states that the findings are highly context driven and particularities must be taken into account when applying a similar approach to other Indian states and situations.

To conclude, Raheel Dhattiwala has done what many researchers before her could not--provide a comprehensive sociological study on the Gujarat riots with significant empirical data. Despite being a witness of the riot in 2002, she tries to approach the subject with the indifference of a good researcher. This factor in fact is integral to making the book a significant and rare find in an area where research bias is altogether unavoidable.

She methodically examines factors like electoral support of BJP, spatial spread of Muslims in an area, Muslim immigration, literacy levels, unemployment and demographic dividend to explain the difference in the spatial spread of violence in Gujarat.The real life narratives interspersed amidst the empirical findings lends it a distinct flavour- a tasteful blend of research and non-fiction.

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