The complex nature of India’s urban riots

Institute of Development Studies - University of Sussex

Rioting is an endemic phenomenon in India’s cities. In 2014 alone, nearly 6,000 riots took place in 53 cities with more than 1 million residents, with over 7,000 officially registered victims. This level of public violence in cities is nearly unparalleled across the world. In relation to the event ‘Plural Security in the City’ organized by the University of Amsterdam, the Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute and the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law, Jaideep Gupte of the University of Sussex offers three starting points to understand this type of endemic urban violence at this scale. These points can help identify the type of violence and hence, the level and nature of the necessary security provision interventions.


1. Riots that were previously understood as ‘singular’ or ‘monotone’ occurrences of violence are in fact more complex events, and analysis at a citywide level only gives a partial picture.

Simple arithmetic shows that at the levels measured in 2014, more than 100 riots took place in every major city in India. Cities are thus not inherently safe from this type of endemic violence. The enormity of this number however tends to contradict the non-uniformity of incidence – urban riots occur endemically only in some neighborhoods and occasionally in others, while most urban areas do not experience such violence. So my first starting point is to ask: where exactly is the violence occurring? This is a spatial as well as temporal question as riots not only occur in particular spaces but can also be ‘deployed’ instrumentally at specific moments of time, such as during elections.

In a study performed by myself,  Patricia Justino and Jean-Pierre Tranchant, we found that most households were not affected by the riots, even in the neighborhoods that experienced riots at a higher intensity. Furthermore, most of the households that were affected do not report injuries, deaths, destruction of assets or losses of money. These households were spread out (dispersed) within their neighborhoods, which seems to suggest that the riots might have been ‘unplanned’. However, an analysis of a sub-set of ‘acute’ victims that sustained physical injuries, loss of life in the household, loss of money or assets revealed it was overwhelmingly likely that the acute victims lived within five minutes of each other. This speaks to an alternate autonomy of the riots wherein the violence might have been premeditated.

2. Even when incidence of rioting is endemic, it is essential to focus on the individuals involved.

There is a dark, gendered reality to these riots that is often hidden. The intimate links with predatory and sexual violence demand a clear understanding of whoexperiences violence and who perpetrates it. Care is needed however, to disentangle victimization from perpetration as these categories are too broad to capture the nuanced complexities of how the violence unfolds. During a riot, a ‘perpetrator’ might also have once been a victim.

The motivations and compulsions to perpetrate violence are just as complex. Evidence from around the world suggests that looting and thievery form an integral part of riots. During the intense riots of 1992-1993 in Mumbai for example, the police reported rioters hoarding mosquito repellent, cloth to make saris, televisions and other items with relatively low street-value. In the London riots in of 2011, it was predominantly ‘trainers…booze and fags’. Another reason for the looting might simply be that shops and restaurants are the most ‘visible’ businesses from the street-view. As such, they might be seen as symbols of an economy that brings prosperity to some, but excludes others.


Photo credit: The field team mapping ‘micro distances’ / Jaideep Gupte

3. Understand the socio-political structures involved in the perpetration and prevention of violence

Given the instrumental deployment of riots in contexts like India, it is useful to also understand the nature of the socio-political structures and organizations that are involved in the perpetration of violence on the one hand, and on the other, its prevention. Those arrested for rioting are often ‘paid protestors’ yet this fuels wider myths about riots. One such myth is that ‘idle youth’ are often to blame for endemic urban violence. This is a fallacy that is not supported by empirical evidence. Just as youth might be involved in the perpetration of violence, they are just as likely to be the victims and as a group they also have immense capacities to effectively prevent violence.

What then are the implications for security provision in cities?

Violence might occur ‘on cities’ (as in cities under siege). They might also occur ‘within cities’ (where violence is located in urban settings, but almost by circumstance), or it may be ‘inherent to cities’ (where the types of violence are specifically urban in nature and even become ingrained into the everyday fabric of urban life).

This approach outlined in the three starting points above is very different from interventions that are overly regime-centric and militaristic, as well as non-local in nature. Understanding the ‘plural’ nature of security implies understanding the diversity in modalities of violence, as well as the range of actors and innovations involved in its prevention. Although reforms of policing, judicial and correctional functioning are key components, delivering sustained security in cities almost always involves citizen-led innovations. It is only the latter that can break the cycles of recidivistic perpetration and endemic violence. The ‘slum panchayats and the ‘mohalla committees’ in Mumbai are examples of community members coming together with the police to jointly prevent violence.

Security provisions also do not need to be so formalized. In an earlier article, I have shown how gangs and vigilante groups also take on the guise of security providers. These types of actors are often regarded as the most credible providers of security by people who rely on the most readily available security in their desperation when violence is surrounding them. Ironically, this can legitimate the very actors who perpetuate violence and insecurity.

Join the conversation

This blog post is part of an online continuation of the conversation started at the event ‘Plural Security in the City’, held on 22 October 2015 in Amsterdam. The Platform and The Broker are organizing a series of online blog posts on this topic, in order to inform the Platform’s broader network about the discussions that have taken place during the event, and to invite you to join the conversation.

Photo credit main picture: The Riot Police / Glenis1 via Flickr

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