What does one make of facts such as these? The systematic evidence gathered in this book allows us to see just how uneven the spread of Hindu-Muslim violence has been, even in calamitous times. The rich and well-textured empirical evidence alone make Varshney’s a remarkable achievement in a field where scholarship usually generates more heat than light. But Varshney also proposes a theoretically innovative explanation for this variation. National-level factors, like political provocations, polarising ideologies and institutional forms can contribute to Hindu-Muslim conflict, but they can’t explain variations in violence.
The distribution of violence has to be explained by locally specific factors. But structural factors like class, or demography, economic temptations, or even administrative biases, are no good explanations either. The key lies in the local networks of association that bind the two communities together. Those cities or localities that have a density of intercommunal networks of social life, that routinely bring together members of the two communities, are less likely to be riot-prone than cities that lack such networks. While everyday forms of engagement between two communities can help bring about peace, shared associational life in the form of political parties, trade unions, peace committees, that routinely and actively elicit intercommunal participation is the most robust guarantor of peace. Such associations not only help build trust, they also allow support for communal peace to be more visibly, forcefully expressed.
Varshney argues for this thesis through a variety of case studies. Lucknow is less riot-prone than Hyderabad, because of a richer history of intercommunal associations; Ahmedabad became one of India’s worst riot-prone towns after the decline of intercommunal civic life. Varshney provides compelling evidence to the effect that communal violence in Ahmedabad was a consequence, not a cause of the breakdown of significant intercommunal associations like the Textile Labour Association and the Congress party. Even in riot-prone cities like Surat, localities having intercommunal networks remain calm amidst gruesome violence.
Varshney has an original answer to the question ‘What differentiates cities that experience violence from cities that don’t?’. It is the existence of networks of associations that include members from both communities; segregated civic associational life makes cities more vulnerable to riots. The formation, institutionalisation and destruction of these networks is a complex process, often a matter of local history and circumstance, rather than political will.
The book is richly textured in its methodology and moves at many levels. Varshney deftly anticipates objections, and in the bulk of the book is far more multi-causal in his approach to violence than any summary of the arguments, including his own, might suggest.
The book raises many questions. But one conclusion that will raise the most eyebrows is this: While Varshney acknowledges that state biases exist, he insists that the argument that "they are primarily responsible for the state’s failure to prevent these (riots) is flawed". Since neither staff abilities nor the quality of administration varies between peaceful and riot-prone cities, "it is not possible to link the difference between peaceful and violent towns to policing or administrative factors".
To many readers, this may seem to understate the role of the state and exonerate it from culpability. It simply does not follow from the fact that some cities with biased administrations do not experience riots, that biased administration and the state actors are not primarily responsible in the cities that do. I don’t think Varshney’s thesis is as incompatible with the claim that the character of the state is an important variable in explaining riots as he, and his potential critics, might make it sound. Varshney convincingly explains enduring patterns of violence and peace in cities, why some cities are more riot-prone than others. But this is not the same thing as explaining the incidence of a particular riot, where of course, the signals state actors send are more important. But occasional difficulties notwithstanding, this book is an extraordinary achievement.
(The reviewer is Professor of Philosophy and of Law and Governance at JNU.)