Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Paul Brass at ICES on Collective Violence & the Role of Civil Society: Some Notes, Thoughts & Questions

I was at the ICES on Monday (19th March) evening for a lecture by Prof. Paul. R. Brass on ‘Forms of Collective Violence’. I was at an ICES event almost after a year. (I think the last time I was there when they screened “Hotel Rwanda’).

My interest in Paul Brass was stimulated when I came across his book “Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison” when I was doing some research on pluralism. I have maintained an interest in Indian Politics for a very long time and I was naturally attracted to Brass’s work, Brass having spent almost 40 years of research work in India, specifically in Northern and Western India. (My colleagues at the Faculty of Law find American Politics more interesting and sometimes exhibit more involvement in it than local politics in Sri Lanka. To me this is a fall out of the Americanisation of the Global Communications world. At the same time I am also aware that their shift in interest towards American politics is largely because of their frustration with local politics). My interest in Indian politics is because of the fact that I had spent a fair amount of my very early years in Southern Tamil Nadu, the fact that I am a Tamil and because I admire the complex working of the Indian democratic set up with its vastness in population, area and diversity.)

To get back to the lecture, Paul Brass talked about his new book, “Forms of Violence: Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India” and set out to provide a summary of the arguments in his book. I make note in this post some aspects of his talk that attracted my attention.

The metaphor of a play and collective violence
Brass identifies him with the Instrumentalist school of understanding ethnography and hence rejects primordialism. He said that he does not believe in riots and other forms of violence as spontaneous and passionate responses emanating from people but as orchestrated by ‘institutionalised riot systems’ where violence is instigated, promoted and planned. He stressed on the organizational aspect of communal violence in India. While acknowledging humbly that his arguments would mean nothing new to the ordinary man he set out to use the metaphor of a play when talking about his work on the forms of violence such as riots, pogroms, massacres and violence. He identifies three phases in an organized working system of a riot:

1. The rehearsal phase: This Brass argues, goes on all the time and identifies this as the ‘quite period’, the ‘peaceful period’ or ‘the flat stable part of a graph in a statistician’s worksheet’ where one is unaware that the ‘work is going on all the time’.
2. The activation and enactment phase: This takes place when the time is ripe and has the necessary political context.
3. The Explanation and the interpretation phase: Most of the time Brass noted the explanations that are provided during this phase are false.

He identified the different ‘specialist’ roles played by different people in the different phases of this play. In the rehearsal stage the role of whom he calls ‘fire tenders’ to keep the cultural differences ripe, is key. The politicians are the key actors in all stages of the play but different types of politicians assume importance during the different stages of the play. He also said that the blame is usually cast on hooligans and criminals but said that equally and more importantly people like university professors take part and are equally to blame as well. Also is the role of whom he called ‘locators for sites for the riots to be staged’.

In the activation and enactment stage again politicians, speech makers, college students, lawyers (to release and defend perpetrators), senior politicians (to provide political cover to the perpetrators) are important. He identified in specific with a lot of importance the role of whom he called ‘communication specialists’ (poster plasters, vernacular media etc) at this stage. (Our local ‘communication specialists’ would be the NMAT and the PNM likes). In India the role of the partial, prejudiced anti-Muslim police force also is an important player at this stage. The ‘conversion specialists’, who for example convert processions and demonstrations into stages for violence, are also crucial to the success of this stage of activity.

At the explanation stage things like the commissions of inquiries sprout. (I couldn’t help identifying the recent commission of inquiry that has been set up by the GOSL with this explanation stage though this one doesn’t technically follow a riot). Social scientists are important for what he called the ‘blame displacement’ game.

Brass noted that he hasn’t done any significant work on civil war. But the relevance of his research in Sri Lanka is perhaps is in developing an understanding to the 58, 77 and especially the 83 riots.

Paul Brass’s approach to social analysis was refreshing and his arguments persuasive. There was perhaps nothing in his presentation that was ‘surprisingly’ and ‘astonishingly’ new, but gave a good conceptual framework from which one could think about the problem of collective violence. The arrogance that he displayed when commenting about people whom he disagreed with, amused me. He said that ‘wise’ people always critiqued him about not ‘defining’ terms such as riots and pogroms. He was against defining and labeling and said that this was not natural science for you to name and define objects and substance, but an area of study where you deal with people who constantly think and change. He noted that one man’s riot is one man’s pogrom and perhaps to another a massacre.

Critique of civil society and the ‘civic engagement theory’
What was very interesting was Brass’s highly critical counter to the ‘civic engagement theory’ floated by people like Prof. Varshney. Though he mentioned this in passing without referring to Varshney during his presentation, during the question time he was asked to elaborate.

He had some very valid points which make a contribution to the debate on the question as to how much civil society work can help in preventing and managing conflicts. He made it explicit that he hates the term ‘civil society’ (so does he hate the word ‘democracy’!!). He was of the opinion that theories like civic engagement might be relevant for countries like the US where big bar associations, big interest groups have some consistent and continued influence on the political system. In countries like India there are big associations that do involve the Hindus and Muslims where exchanging greetings between Id and Diwali is made possible. These are not enough to prevent conflict and all the good work that you do can be all undone in a minute or two by politics accompanied by power. These ties and relationships are broken when political movements arise with ferocity, he explained. He criticized the work of Varshney as having no reliable evidence through ethnographical research or democracy.

Brass also mentioned in passing, things that I had read about on India, about how the hierarchy in the political system in India dominated at the top by the high castes is being replaced with by people from the middle castes. He attributed the reasoning to neo liberalism as practiced in India for the past 10-15 years in which the higher castes are increasingly seeking positions in the new power systems dominated by Global Corporations moving away from the traditional spaces of power. He also noted as to how the Communist party led Governments in West Bengal and Kerala have been largely successful in keeping away religious riots from their states. But he was careful and repeated himself when he tried to clarify that he was not a Communist!! But one also needs to keep in mind, reminded by the developments in West Bengal in the past week or so, where local villagers in Nadigram are resisting the (West Bengal) Government’s plan to take away their lands under the guise of the ‘Special Economic Zones for development’ plan and the subsequent violent clashes between the ‘Communist’ Govt and the villagers. I feel that ‘economic riots’ will see the rise in India (with the upsurge in neo-liberal policies) already being manifested through the growing Naxalite movement in the country. Though this was lightly touched upon it would have been interesting to know more of Brass’s response to this development.

‘Grey’ gatherings; where are the young?
I will end this rather lengthy post with this note that I was concerned to see the amount of grey on most of the participants’ hair and wondered where the young intellects in the country are? I also wonder why people like Brass can’t be invited to speak to our students at our universities. In my faculty we hardly have guest lectures. We hear in the newspapers through the hyperactive work of our NGOs the visit of many reputed scholars to the country. Why can’t they be brought into contact with the intellectuals, decision and policy makers of our future? If such academic activities are not possible in our universities how better are they than our secondary schools? At the same time are our youth really interested in these sorts of activities? I have heard very brilliant colleagues of mine expressing with disgust how fed up they are with these type of activities because of the frustration they have with the local civil society groups’ very limited capacity to impact on our political process, culture and system. The question they ask is: “What do you want us to do by getting involved in these activities? Write papers and get invited for conferences?!!” We are definitely in a rather complex vicious circle.

www.paulbrass.com Some of his work is available on this website of his.


CR said...

Nice site, Aachcharya, and good to see you online and at the talk. Found Prof. Brass's talk interesting and like you was very disappointed that not more young people turned up. Perhaps it's a symptom of ICES failing to reach that audience but perhaps also a lack of interest on their part. Hopefully, that will change, but when there is so much explanation and analysis (even of Brass's high quality) and so little improvement in our own political situation, it's easy to get disheartened and stop listening to more and more talk and so little change.

I think that Brass's description of a staged drama is very applicable to SL. I had asked him earlier why SL had gone through a series of riots - 58 and then 77,79,81 and 83 - and then stopped, and his suggestion was that the use of the riot as a strategic weapon was nullified by the fact that conflict had escalated to civil war and new modes of strategy were employed. I think we all know what those new modes are.

I, too, found the criticism of Varshney's work quite amusing. You may find the link below interesting. Enjoy! http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2003-December/003283.html


anisha y said...

i'm slightly amused at your ascribing somewhat noble causes for your interest in Indian politics, while making others interested in American politics seem to be puppets dancing merrily at the ends of strings.
I see interest in American politics as stemming from an understanding that globalization in general, not merely confined to media culture, is largely influenced by American foreign policy - this foreign policy in turn obviously influenced by American political developments. For example it would be interesting to consider what changes would have been possible in the development of international relations and global conflict resolution if there was sitting in Washington a president whose policies were conducive to international cooperation and more liberal thought. I'm sure you would understand the implications and I hope thereby you would also understand the possibility that to some the relevance of South Indian politics pales in comparison to occurrences of true global significance emanating from elsewhere.

Aachcharya said...

Let me make it clear that I had no intentions of claiming moral superiority in declaring my interest in Indian politics and in comparing it to that of my colleagues’ interest in American politics. I don’t know how you came to the conclusion that I validate my interest in Indian politics by providing 'noble causes' or what made you opine that I perceive my colleagues who show an interest in American politics as 'puppets dancing merrily at the ends of strings'. This definitely does amuse me.

I believe that one’s interests are dictated in terms of what he or she is 'proximate' to. I have in my post provided some of the proximate facors that affected me. Let me explain further: Even after I got back to Jaffna (from Tamil Nadu) in 1998 after a gap of six years, given that none of the television channels had relay facilities in Jaffna at that time, i continued to watch 'Doordarshan' (the Indian state owned TV Channel) the only Television channel that was available. Internet was unknown and when it became available, expensive in Jaffna and comparatively its is still expensive. Identification in terms of language and culture also can be added to this 'proximity' factor. Further, all the Tamil dailies I read have a specific daily segment on Indian news. These all contribute to the 'proximity'. I also find Indian politics more proximate to the character and nature of what makes me a person and hence the interest. My facination with Indian politics and the way Indian democracy works is the 'fall out'.

My colleagues possess an interest in American politics since in it are factors that are 'proximate' to them. The reason you provide is the 'fall out' that such factors produce and my referrence to the 'globalization of the communication world dominated by America' is the proximity factor.

ay said...

was just in a combative mood my friend...

N.J.A said...

Isn't the proximity due more to impact than it is to access? I mean, I don't give a toss about where Anna Nicole Smith was buried even though I have plenty of access to that material. I also have access to Indian regional politics but the 'impact' of the decisions at that level have no relevance to my life. Since I buy petrol to run my parents car, the impact of the decisions taken at the White House impact me at a personal level. Cannot this explain the interest of your peers, myself included, in American politics?

Anonymous said...


Of course it’s the proximity which matters. That proximity is the reason for every Sri Lankan to pay more attention to Indian politics than the politics of the other countries including the USA. It’s true, like my self, you don’t have to give a toss about where Anna Nicole Smith was buried; because as we both know, that has no relevancy to Sri Lankan citizens except for her fans. Nevertheless when it comes to political arena, it’s the big brother’s decisions influence Sri Lanka more than Washington’s decisions. Look at how the past UNP and UPFA governments performed. When they make serious decisions, it was India firstly informed. Look at how Sri Lankan government keeps their eye on Tamil Nadu politics. Look at how project Sethu samudram impacts on Sri Lanka. Look at how Sri Lankan media seriously deliberate on Karuna nidhi’s statements. India’s most of the security measures influence Sri Lankan military.

American politics influences everyone human being on this earth. It affects every person at global level. It influences my life in the same rate as it influences your life. Sri Lankan politics have a very distant proximity with American politics. One may have an interest on American politics, but it’ll only continue as an interest. Whether it democrats or Republicans in power, their attitude towards Sri Lankan will be always the same. But when it comes to influencing one’s life, it’s our neighbor’s politics which seriously impacts on us.

Though you conscious or not, Indian politics at national level and regional level influences you more than American politics as long as you live in Sri Lanka.

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