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The Ecology of Ethnic Violence: Attacks on Muslims of Ahmedabad in 2002

Abstract

Ethnic violence killed at least a thousand Muslims in Gujarat (western India) in 2002. The role of political elites in orchestrating attacks against Muslims for electoral gains was a conspicuous characteristic of the violence. Yet, as this article demonstrates, the political thesis was insufficient in explaining why neighborhoods, often contiguous, experienced different levels of violence. Alternative explanations, such as interethnic contact, were also found wanting. A unique research design allowing the comparison of neighborhoods in the same electoral ward in the city of Ahmedabad demonstrates the critical role of ecology in explaining microspatial variation in the violence. Even when attacks were politically orchestrated, attackers still acted with some regard to self-preservation in selecting which location to attack. Observational and testimonial evidence based on 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork reveals the importance of two ecological factors: the built environment and the population distribution of potential targets. Together, the two factors heavily shaped crowds’ decisions to attack or escape, thus influencing the subsequent success or failure of the attack. Muslims were most vulnerable where they were concentrated in small numbers and on routes that afforded the attackers obstacle-free entry and retreat. Where the potential targets had an obstacle-free escape route to a large concentration of fellow Muslims, the outcome was looting and arson rather than killing. By implication, the course of politically orchestrated violence was complicated by the ecology of the targeted space.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The author received the Nuffield Sociology Doctoral Studentship from Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

  2. 2.

    Had the violence been spontaneous, it would be correct to expect the most outraged people — and, subsequently, the worst violence — in places where the BJP was dominant. See also, Raheel Dhattiwala, “Deliberateness and spontaneity in violence”, The Hindu, 31 December 2013.

  3. 3.

    Transcripts are translations from Gujarati, Hindi or Urdu. Respondent names are pseudonyms; place names are unchanged. Verbatim words of respondents are italicized.

  4. 4.

    See also Grimshaw 1960; Martin et al. 2009; Schelling 1963.

  5. 5.

    One-third of PN overlapped with a different ward, Danilimda, though the identical political configuration of Behrampura and Danilimda in 2002, made them comparable.

  6. 6.

    Videography of riot-affected areas, Naroda Patiya. Case no. 100, Naroda Police Station.

  7. 7.

    Core respondents included Hindus (33), Muslims (48) and one Christian. This group included rioters (7), targets and witnesses of attacks (25), elected politicians and political party members (12), police (4) and other residents (34).

  8. 8.

    On March 1 and May 11 respectively, the police charged two Hindu men from RRN for arson and looting in neighborhoods within two kilometers of RRN.

  9. 9.

    A Muslim man found dead on March 1 on the road leading into STN had “staggered in” following injuries sustained outside STN. Police record his death as a result of “grievous hurt,” not “murder,” unlike other riot deaths.

  10. 10.

    The colloquial use of the English word “border” or “Wagah border” in conflict-ridden cities such as Ahmedabad implies the Indo-Pak border.

  11. 11.

    Fifteen shops lined on the inside of KM3 were harmed when the six shops were burnt.

  12. 12.

    The “Rabaris” are a Hindu caste group notified under Other Backward Classes (OBC) in Gujarat, a term used in the Indian Constitution for socially and educationally disadvantaged caste groups to receive affirmative action benefits.

  13. 13.

    Associational interethnic ties resulting from economic interdependence in both markets were negligible. Hindus refrained from engaging in the business that involved storing the scrap machinery for several years. The Islamic practice of “riba” discouraged economic gain from appreciation of the goods, a practice “commercially unviable” for Hindus.

  14. 14.

    Police first information report. Danilimda police station, Ahmedabad, 18 March 2002.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Michael Biggs for excellent insights on several drafts of this article; Prasad Chacko and Imran Pathan of Human Development and Research Centre, Ahmedabad, for data on Naroda Patiya and all respondents in Ahmedabad for their time and patience. Andrea Canales, Robin David, Heather Hamill, Anthony Heath, Juta Kawalerowicz, Anthony King, Samina Luthfa, Rima Majed, Lucia Michelutti, Federico Varese, Wybo Wiersma, Steven Wilkinson, participants at the 2012 Annual South Asia Conference, Madison-Wisconsin, provided valuable comments. Comments from three anonymous reviewers and the editor-in-chief of Qualitative Sociology substantially refined the central arguments of this article.

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Dhattiwala, R. The Ecology of Ethnic Violence: Attacks on Muslims of Ahmedabad in 2002. Qual Sociol 39, 71–95 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-015-9320-5

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Keywords

  • Hindu-Muslim
  • Riots
  • Ethnic violence
  • Spatial configuration
  • Gujarat
  • India