Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity among Bengali Muslims, 1905-1947

Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity among Bengali Muslims, 1905-1947

Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity among Bengali Muslims, 1905-1947

Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity among Bengali Muslims, 1905-1947

Synopsis

In recent decades, the world has witnessed the emergence of several protracted violent conflicts and the eruption of ethnic and communal violence in countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka. Riots and Victims challenges the popular academic interpretation of such events as examples of "tribal slaughter" or spontaneous eruptions, fueled by historic conflict between religious and ethnic communities. This book examines the origins and consequences of the violence that occurred between the Muslim and Hindu communities in pre-partition Bengal, which ultimately resulted in the creation of Pakistan. Gossman argues that communal violence and communal identity were not merely the consequences of long-term animosities, but rather ploys orchestrated by mid-level politicians for their own advancement and aggrandizement. Riots and Victims introduces new analyses of local violence and identity, and explores issues of far-reaching importance.

Excerpt

The decade-long itinerary of this study began as an investigation into the construction 3of a separatist Bengali Muslim political identity. the decision to look more closely at the function of violence in shaping that identity was in part a natural consequence of my coming to terms with what had originally been a rather unwieldy research topic. More important, my decision to focus specifically on violence grew out of my experience monitoring human rights developments in South Asia in my position as principal South Asia researcher for the human rights organization, Human Rights Watch. in the ten years since I began my field work, "communal" violence has become an issue of more than academic interest to South Asianists and South Asians. It has become an issue of urgent concern for all countries of the region.

When I arrived in India in December 1984, Delhi was still reeling from the carnage that had followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Some three thousand Sikhs were killed in an orchestrated pogrom for three days in early November. Despite credible evidence of official connivance and police participation in the violence, no officials or police were ever prosecuted. in the years that have followed, the targets of attack have been Muslim, and police and politicians have again been identified as instigating the violence or participating in attacks.

Yet the myth that even these incidents represent spontaneous eruptions, ignited by historic animosities between religious communities, persists. the politicians who exploit these incidents have frequently cited similar incidents from pre-partition India to bolster their claim that the hatreds that divide communities are immutable and permanent. My frustration with their success in doing so prompted me to look closer at incidents of "communal" violence from the pre-partition period for evidence of planning and clear political motivation behind these "riots." While such an analysis is part of human rights documentation, it has seldom been applied to historical incidents of communal violence.

I have used examples from pre-partition Bengal to show that incidents of "communal" violence are politically-motivated; that incidents of violence are more often than not deliberate and planned; and that the repre-

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