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MIT discusses India's 'institutional communal riot system'

May 06, 2010 00:07 IST

The challenges posed by terrorism and sectarian violence to India's rule of law and secularism came under focus during a workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earlier this month.

The speakers said that for the last 60 years or so, there has been an 'institutional communal riot system' in India.

Summarizing his 40 years of research on violence in South Asia, Paul R Brass, professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, said, 'It is a mistake to characterize violence between two communities simply as religious violence. Political groups use religion to stoke the violence to further their own political interests.'

Riots, he said, are engineered to benefit 'the political party that perpetrates it and violence results in consolidation of Hindu and Muslim votes.' Brass, who has visited India several times, said violence is like a drama in three stages -- rehearsal, enactment, and interpretations — and that each stage has actors who play important roles.

'Riots are produced when there is absence of will in state governments and apathy in local administration,' he said, adding that any competent district magistrate should be able to stop violence in any part of India.

The workshop, titled 'Rising Group Violence, Terrorism and Impunity: Challenges to Secularism and Rule of Law in India,' was attended by close to 160 people and was sponsored by the program on human rights and justice at the Center for International Studies, MIT. The main organizers were Omar Khalidi, an MIT staff member, and MIT faculty members Haimanti Roy and Balakrishnan Rajagopal. Speakers included Angana Chatterjee of the California Institute of Integral Studies and Arvind Verma, a senior Indian Police Service officer who is teaching at the University of Indiana.

Chatterjee, who has investigated group violence against minorities in India -- she was recently in Orissa studying the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district -- made over a dozen references to recent case studies to drive home the point that the Orissa violence was meant to discipline and terrorize the Christian minority.

Manoj Mitta, senior editor, The Times of India, New Delhi, said since the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, not more than half a dozen people have been convicted.

Other speakers included Mukul Sinha, head of the Jan Sangharsh Manch rights group in Ahmedabad. Displaying a chart listing the cell phone records of then Gujarat ministers Maya Kodani, Jayadev Patel and senior police officials like M K Tandon, Sinha alleged that at least three ministers instructed police officers to move their units away from the sites of attacks on Muslims in Gulbarga and Naroda Patia areas in the 2002 riots.

He said the cell phone records, obtained under the Right to Information Act, demonstrated a direct nexus between some ministers and some police units in Ahmedabad in those fateful days.

"What basically emerged from the two-day discussions and deliberations," said Khalidi, "was that in order to control group violence, the State and its constituents, that is the political authorities comprising federal and state home ministers, district magistrates/collectors and police authorities, must be ideologically committed to neutral law enforcement. That is presently lacking and speakers felt that often the political authorities and the law enforcement institutions show bias against the ethnic and religious minorities."

Kaleem Kawaja, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist and part of the Association of Indian Muslims of America, said the thrust was to analyze and understand why in modern, resurgent India, anomalies like uncontrolled religious, ethnic and tribal violence occur frequently and why the government is unable to control it.

"Instead of being emotional or angry," he said, "I think it was a cerebral forum to come to grips with a difficult problem that we have in India." 

'Lopsided, biased and derogatory account'

Hindu groups including the Hindu Human Rights Watch lambasted the MIT workshop on communal violence in India for 'inviting biased and harmful human rights activists, lawyers and religion bashers.'

The workshop's 'exclusive selection of topics and its speakers show that the outcome of this conference is preordained,' wrote Satya Dosapatti of the HHRW. 'The truth about the agenda of this conference is reflected by the fact that it doesn't even mention the long-lasting struggle of Kashmiris who were driven away by Islamic terrorists from their homes and live in squalid camps as refugees in their own country for the last 18 years.'

The protesters wrote to MIT President Susan Hockfield, declaring that allowing the workshop would be tantamount to academic misconduct.

'Clearly, the so-called workshop… will adversely affect the relations between USA and India,' declared Dr S Kalyanaraman, who said he was part of the Sarasvati Research and Education Trust.

'I do not think that MIT should be seen to be a party to souring the friendly relations between two sovereign nations by presenting a lopsided, biased and derogatory account of happenings in India which should be the concern of the Indian State and the government officials and social organizations.'

The protesters alleged that the list of invited speakers was biased because it included the names of 'well-known India-basher, Angana Chatterji and R K Raghavan who heads the Special Investigation Team on Gujarat focusing on demonizing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.' Raghavan did not attend the conference.

Professor Omar Khalidi of MIT, one of the three main organizers of the event who was a particular target of the protesters, said almost all the participants received communications from the protesters asking them not to attend the event.

"One member of the audience asked (Paul R) Brass why he was so anti-India, which the professor refused to answer because he thought it was a silly question," Khalidi said.

"Nobody was prevented from coming in because it was intended to be an open and intellectual discussion on the problem. If they have dissenting views or opinions, they are all free to organize another workshop or conference propagating their point of view. But certainly, intellectual freedom of people cannot be curbed just because some people do not agree with the views of others."

Suman Guha Mozumder