Riots do reflect a failure of the administration, or more precisely, the politics, says Makiko Kimura, in an interview with Ajay Vaishnav. A sociologist by profession, Kimura is currently an associate professor at the Tsuda College, Tokyo, Japan. She has authored ‘The Nellie Massacre of 1983’. In her book, Kimura argues that rioters had their own agency and decision-making power, and were not mere puppets of ideology and structural causes. Instead, they interpreted the circumstances in their own way and decided to riot.
Q1. What prompted you to undertake research on riots in India, in particular, the Nelli massacre of 1983?
Kimura: I was willing to do some work on ethnic issues in northeast, and have chosen the antiforeigner movement by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) for the main theme of my Ph.D. I wanted to know how indigenous tribal groups were involved in the movement, and was suggested to go to Nellie. After visiting Nellie, I came to know that a large-scale killing took place there, and started focusing on the issue of collective violence. So for me, the focus on the Assam movement and the Nellie incident came first, and then compared it with other cases of violence in India.
Nellie is definitely one of the largest incidents in independent India. When we compare the number of dead, Gujarat (2002)-2000, Delhi (1984)-3000, Nellie is 2000. As it happened during the peak of the anti-foreigner movement in Assam, there is no clarity on the number of dead. There are estimates which peg it at even 3000. There are estimates which peg it at even 7000 while others between 3000-5000.
Q3. What difficulties you faced during the research?
Kimura: As a foreigner, I was not familiar with the language and culture of the area. However, it was not so difficult to find somebody who would help me communicating with people and explain the area. During intensive fieldwork, I gained deeper understanding of Assamese culture and society. The main difficulty came from the administration. During my one-month research, police visited me twice and told me not to make research visits without their accompanying me for “security reasons.” Also, in 2004, a seminar on the issue was called off by the state government. There was a merit of being a foreigner, though. I did not have any bias towards any community.
Q4. What are your major research findings? What led to the Nelli Massacre? Was it because of hate politics or economics or both?
Kimura: Unlike the image that the riot participants are “barbaric mob,” “savage” or “urban poor controlled by goondas,” the people whom I came across in Nellie looked to me simple and ordinary villagers in peaceful rural areas. They also had their own reasons to attack the minority community, and their decision-making sounds rational, although their perspective based on the everyday experiences might be different from that of urban middle-class. “The rioters are, in a way, rational and had their own reason to attack.” That’s the most important finding from the Nellie Massacre.
In the villagers’ narratives, you will find all the factors: land issues, small skirmishes between the two communities, and then the intervention by the student leaders and the Congress politicians. But in the attackers’ narratives, the self-defence was most important. There were rumours that the members of the minority community might attack them, and they decided to take the preventive measures.
Q5. What should be done to stop riots in India? How different you think the Nelli Massacre is from the 2002 Gujarat riots?
Kimura: Collective violence, or so-called riots, doesn’t take place if law enforcement agencies such as police and security forces can deter them. In my opinion, there are two types when the riot takes place: 1) the govt does not deploy the police and security forces effectively. 2) the govt had a will to protect, but it failed for some reasons. The Gujarat riot is the typical case of the former, and the Nellie massacre is the latter case. The Congress government had a will to protect the victims (Muslims of Bengal origin, their vote bank) but they failed, partly because the violence triggered by the student organization’s boycott was so widespread, and partly because the local police was sympathetic to the movement and did not take action. In other words, the law enforcement authorities got paralyzed in the clash between the government and the powerful movement leaders, and there was a vacuum of authority in the state.
It does reflect a failure of the administration, or more precisely, the politics. Politicians do not stop riots (or sometimes actively engage in it) because they gain some benefits from them. Then what is necessary is to invent a political system where they gain benefits from preventing violence and build a peaceful society. It might sound too idealistic, but with imaginative and constructive efforts, I believe that’s not impossible.