Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia
by Stanley J. Tambiah
Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1996
The how and why of mob violence in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Although the end of the Cold War is largely celebrated, there are those in the Third World that seem to miss it. Among them, it is perhaps the parasites and the mafias – euphemistically called the ruling elites – who miss it the most.For, while it lasted, the global balance of power (and terror) was the focus of the whole worlds attention. Its end, however, brought into sharp focus the fact that several Third World states had systematically converted themselves into killing fields through engineered crowd violence and well-planned ethnic, sectarian, tribal and linguistic persecutions – facts that could no longer be hidden.
The complex issues relating to South Asian ethnic tragedies and schemings have rarely received proper study. This void has been filled, to a great extent, by this remarkable study by Stanley J. Tambiah. Researching a sensitive subject which demands intellectual involvement and detachment from parochial affiliations is not easy, but Leveling Crowds doesn’t disappoint.
Roots and riots
To begin with, unlike many who began writing on ethnicity because a market for it developed in the post-Cold War era, Tambiah did not jump onto the bandwagon because the market suddenly opened up. Author of books such as Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy and Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka, the writer has lived with the subject since the formative years of his career as a scholar. As he points out:
My exposure to ethnic conflict began when as a person of Sri Lankan origin and with experience of life in that country, the riots of 1983 there touched and involved me personally so directly and intensely that as an insider as well as an anthropologist, I felt entitled and indeed compelled to write my version and to make evaluations and proposals, because the people and events I was representing were not differently the other but intimately my own.
In June 1956, as a 27-year-old social scientist recently returned from graduate studies in the United States, Tambiah took a team of 33 students (26 Sinhalese and seven Tamils) to conduct a survey of some newly settled colonies in Gal Oya Valley. The team was caught in the Sinhalese-Tamil riots of 1956 and young Tambiah witnessed the beginning of a series of clashes between the two communities culminating in the explosion that was 1983. Soon after returning from Gal Oya, Tambiah wrote a report on the incident, which is included in the book under review. This itself is a remarkable piece, projecting his understanding of the dynamics of the “then still very nascent and controllable” ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
On the victims behalf
Unlike many South Asian scholars working in South Asia or abroad, whose reason and vision remain narrow and myopic, Tambiah is not swayed by petty parochialisms. Leveling Crowds clearly suggests that he is on the side of the victim, whether Tamil or Sinhalese; Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; Mohajir, Pathan, Sindhi or Bihari.
The author has the ability to view issues from a south Asian rather than (in his case) a sri Lankan perspective. He laments the failure of the various faiths and their followers to humanise South Asian societies and prevent the crowds from becoming vultures. In fact, throughout his study, Tambiah refers to the part played by religious revivals and politicised religions in stoking ethnic conflicts and collective violence. He forcefully condemns the use and abuse of religion to perpetuate the culture of violence and the penchant to shed blood on the pavements of Colombo, Bombay, Delhi, Karachi and Lahore in the name of religion and ethnicity.
Developed in the background of a brilliant discourse on the ubiquity of ethnic conflict, politicisation of ethnicity, crisis of nation-state and rise of ethnicity, and with the help of a summing up on Le Bons theorising of the crowd (in Psychologie des foules) and Emile Durkheims Les Formes elementaries de la vie religieuse: Le Systeme totemique en Australie, Tambiahs study focuses primarily on the phenomenon of civilian riots. Several case studies are presented: the 1915 Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka; two post-independence ethnic riots in Sri Lanka; Sikh identity, separation and ethnic conflict; ethnic conflict in Pakistan; and Indias Hindu nationalism, the Ayodhya campaign, and the Babri Masjid.
These studies discuss in detail the background events fuelling mob fury and provide vivid description of how crowds get unruly and then murderous. They also probe into the motives of the many actors involved in the seemingly abrupt eruption of mob violence and attempt a comparative discussion of the organisation and engineering of collective violence in different South Asian states.
Politics of violence
On the basis of these studies, the author concludes that violence as a mode of conducting politics has become established, even institutiona-lised, in the Subcontinent. Writes Tambiah:
One might even go so far as to say that ethnonationalist conflicts combined with collective violence are not just isolated volcanic eruptions but are close to becoming systematised social formations. The evidence for the ritualised and routinised forms of conduct that comprise a repertoire of collective violence supports this assertion. In South Asia (and in many other places as well), violence is an integral part of the political process.
Tracing the origins and causes of the riots in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan that are part of his case study, the author finds that the pattern is the same. A particular community or group is whipped into anger and violent action by the rumour method – rumours are systematically spread about rape, murder, attacks on worship houses and about the imminent arrival of a violent crowd. In most cases, the government, local politicians and society leaders do not try to ascertain facts nor do they counter the rumours.
Instead, observes the author, parts of the state system itself – prominent legislators, members of security forces and civil servants – are directly or indirectly involved in triggering riots. On the whole, riots are preventable, writes Tambiah, taking place as they do over petty matters, the reactions to which are allowed to snowball out of control.
Only someone with little understanding of the dynamics of crowd behaviour would conclude that mob violence is spontaneous. In most cases, it is well thought out, planned and skilfully engineered to achieve the desired goals. A variety of actors can be active in manipulating situations and in masterminding the crowd into going berserk. As identified by Tambiah, these include local politicians, the so-called religious and tribal leaders, state agencies and land sharks seeking to displace people from prime real estate, petty businessmen interested in dislodging rivals, local and national administrations, and even the security forces.
The police, para-military forces and local leaders play an altogether insignificant role in containing crowd violence. The cops almost everywhere remain a mere witness to the mayhem and themselves often indulge in loot and plunder. And though the military and para-military forces are, in acute cases, called in to restore law and order, they are generally summoned when it is too late.
The case studies included in the book also vividly describe the excesses committed by majoritarian states upon the minorities. These expose the intolerance of the majority and indicate the growing temptations for the political leadership to buttress their vote banks by taking recourse to fundamentalist slogans and rabble-rousing.
The author maintains that there is an obvious link between democratic politics and ethnonationalist conflicts in the region. He refers to the “sinister calculation behind purposively staged pogroms and ethnic cleansing”. Referring to the 1984 riots in Delhi and the post-Babri Masjid one in Bombay, he observes that “the majority of targeted victims were male adults and youths, whose deaths or injury most definitely resulted in the main income earners and heads of the households of the victimised community being eliminated… The demographic reduction of the most productive age cohorts of the ethnic enemy is an intentional strategy.”
Tambiahs work is a remarkable piece of scholarship, although naturally in a book of this scope, not without its flaws. In his preface, the writer admits that the study “took a long time to complete” as the “flow of pertinent contemporary political events made closure difficult”. His own “academic and administrative commitments” also forced him to put the work aside “from time to time”. This is perhaps why there are missing threads, and why the chapters are not often well integrated. The chapter on the 1915 Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim riots in Ceylon is well researched, well documented and exhaustive (45 pages). The next chapter on the two post-independence ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, however, is not as comprehensive (18 pages) as the one on the Sikh identity, separation and ethnic conflict, or the one about the ethnic conflict in Pakistan.
Finally, the need remains to investigate the role of the military, as well as the para-military forces and intelligence agencies, in South Asia in manipulating tense situations, mobilising and organising rioting crowds and in keeping people divided along linguistic, regional, tribal, sectarian and ethnic lines. The subject clearly demands a separate scholarly study and possibly couldnt have been a vital part of the present work. Nevertheless, Tambiah could have said more on the subject.
Leveling Crowds is necessary reading on South Asian ethnicity and mob violence. Its major scholarly contribution is its lucid presentation of a theme which has for long begged proper scientific attention. Projecting a South Asian perspective, it gives voice to the voiceless – the threatened and targeted communities. And, most important, without losing its scholarly touch and objectivity, and with an enviable intellectual approach, Tambiah presents a high standard of normative discourse on an issue that calls for humanistic understanding.