Domination, Resistance, and Violence in Ahmedabad

A review of Domination et résistance de la minorité musulmane après le pogrom de 2002 à Ahmedabad (Inde): Les paradoxes de la ghettoïsation à Juhapura [Domination and Resistance in the Muslim Minority after the 2002 Ahmedabad Riots: The Paradoxes of Ghettoization in Juhapura], by Charlotte Thomas

Following the death of fifty-eight Hindus in a train fire within the predominantly Muslim locality of Godhra in Gujarat in 2002, widespread anti-Muslim violence erupted in the state capital, Ahmedabad, resulting in two thousand deaths and 150,000 displaced people. If these riots have been the object of numerous studies (not to speak of lengthy judicial procedures), their long-term effects on India’s Muslim population have received far less attention. It is precisely this gap that Charlotte Thomas’s dissertation fills, through a detailed analysis of Juhapura—a locality on the outskirts of Ahmedabad—and its transformation from a relatively inter-communal slum into a Muslim ghetto after the massacre.

The strength of Thomas’s dissertation lies not only in describing this transformation per se, but in contextualizing it within a much broader historical, economic, and political perspective, theoretically grounded in the Foucauldian discourse of power relations and Michel de Certeau’s concepts of “strategy of domination” and “tactics of resistance” (Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, Vol.1: Les arts de faire. Paris: Union Générale d’Edition, 1980, pp. 20-21). She demonstrates that Juhapura’s transformation was not a mere reaction to the 2002 riots but a relational object: the concretization, within a definite space, of resistance tactics in response to a long-standing policy of domination of Gujarat’s Muslim population, which had started with the collapse of the textile industry in the 1960s.

Presented within an introductory chapter, this theoretical framework was further informed, and by and large dictated (p. 20), by the author’s extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Ahmedabad. Thomas conducted 125 formal interviews, alongside informal observations, and lived immersed within Juhapura for a prolonged period of time. To surpass the inherent difficulties of examining a locality of more than 500,000 inhabitants (the author’s own estimate, p. 11) and transcend the classical qualitative/quantitative/comparative taxonomy, Thomas skillfully used a “microscopic” methodology based on “micrologic” analysis, consisting in more limited but denser case studies woven in throughout the study (Frédéric Sawicki, “Les Politistes et le microscope,” in Myriam Bachir (ed.), Les Méthodes du concret: formes de l’expérience et terrains d’investigation en sciences politiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000, p. 150).

The study is informally divided into two parts, reflecting the mutually constitutive nature of domination and resistance. The first two chapters concentrate on the policy of domination as it emerged in the 1960s, and how it culminated in the 2002 riots. The last two chapters focus on the violence’s aftermath within Juhapura, and the locality’s transformation from slum to Muslim ghetto.

The first chapter places the social setting of Gujarat into a broader historical perspective. A tradition of syncretism and relatively peaceful inter-communal relations between Muslims and Hindus had existed for six centuries, notably expressed in the architecture of Ahmedabad and its urban planning, divided along economic rather than religious lines. In concurrence with Jan Breman (The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad, India. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), Charlotte Thomas shows that the modern era introduced other factors behind Hindu-Muslim cooperation: nineteenth-century industrial development; powerful trade unions (notably the Textile Labour Association); and a common cause (the struggle against the British Raj and, after independence, for an autonomous regional state). Thomas also notes that Ahmedabad’s Muslims were a heterogeneous group and not a united ethnic, economic, or political entity.

The crisis of the textile industry, which started in the 1960s and had taken its toll by the 1980s, severely strained these collaborative ties. It also revealed rampant cronyism between the Unions and the political establishment. Against purely economic and culturalist paradigms, Thomas also stresses the importance of Hindu revivalist ideology (Hindutva) and its progressive dispersion within society through various Sangh Parivar organizations. The Jana Sangh (or Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, after 1980) gained momentum in local elections until, having altered its discourse to include lower-caste Hindus, it finally gained sole control of the Gujarat State government in 1995. Coupled with economic difficulties, this ideology where the “Indian identity is re-invented as equivalent to Hindu identity” (p. 134), has progressively cast aside the Muslim component of the population. This has created tensions, sometimes in the form of riots (in 1969 and 1985 for instance), and eventually led to the events of 2002.

The second chapter concentrates on the specificity of the 2002 riots, which the author qualifies as pogroms, a “form of collective violence” marking the adhesion (at least implicitly) to a certain ideological discourse (Paul Brass, Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 11). Thomas analyzes these events through Jacques Sémelin’s theory of massacre (Purifier et détruire: usages politiques des massacres et genocides. Paris: Seuil, 2005). Thus, she does not consider them as a mere reaction to an event, nor as a solely instrumental mechanism of power (although they took place when the BJP incumbent government was unpopular), but as the spectacular realization of a wider historical context: the 2002 pogroms are to be understood within a broader strategy of domination. Thomas examines how the State government–despite having been judicially cleared from collective responsibility—was complicit in the violence. Indeed, she characterizes the latter as “state terrorism” (p. 153). State authorities instigated a conspiracy discourse following the Godhra train fire and the police remained passive during the pogroms. Moreover, the State government remained apathetic during subsequent relief efforts. Thomas further highlights the silence of third parties (neighbors, members of the diaspora, or local vernacular press) following the pogroms.

In the second part of the chapter, Thomas examines the impact of the 2002 pogroms on the Muslim population. In line with the strategy behind the massacres, which was to subdue its recipients, she stresses that alongside physical violence—which for the first time touched high-caste Muslims—the symbolic violence inflicted through the rape of women and the sense of fear had the effect of creating a “community of suffering” out of an otherwise heterogeneous group (p. 227). Further, the lack of official relief effort and the impossibility of coordinating secular and religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) left the “victims’ market” (p. 196) to predominantly Islamic organizations. This in turn enhanced the religious character of the community and created a vast network of dependency—notably within relief colonies (RC)—starting the transformation of Juhapura from a low-caste Muslim locality into a Muslim ghetto.

The two remaining chapters focus on the spatiality of this interdependence between strategy of domination and Muslim acts of resistance, precisely in the form of the ghetto. The third chapter concentrates on Juhapura as the concretization of the State policy of casting aside the Muslim population. Thomas first embarks on the history of the locality, charting its failure to become a viable suburb in the 1970s, keeping it mainly as an inter-communal slum. This was a slum that, after the 1985 riots and the sharp decrease of its Hindu population, would increasingly become religiously homogenous. The pogroms of 2002 have not only amplified this trend but have also turned Juhapura into a Muslim ghetto.

Thomas analyses this reconfiguration through Loic Wacquant’s definition of “ghetto culture” (Loic Wacquant, “Les deux visages du ghetto: construire un concept sociologique,” in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 2005, n°160, pp. 4-21), i.e. “a ‘relational concept’ where the relations among the population inhabiting it are constantly re-defined in light of its interactions with external actors” (p. 249). This notably translates into the locality’s geographical containment outside the traditional Muslim neighborhoods of Ahmedabad, enhancing the sense of communalism (often criticized by external actors) whilst attracting a richer Muslim population (be it only as a secondary home) for security reasons. The containment is also economic, and Thomas notes the sharp contrasts between the lack of State educational and health institutions compared to the visibility of police forces. For Thomas, this exemplifies the State’s strategy to keep the ghetto’s population in low-tier jobs whilst improving its relations with a minority of affluent Muslim businessmen in order to both repair Gujarat’s reputation—tarnished after the pogroms—and prevent their investment within the ghetto.

Chapter 4 examines how in response to this strategy of domination, different resistance tactics have paradoxically improved the Muslim population’s social mobility. The authors nonetheless asserts that these acts are not the result of a planned strategy, but rather the aggregation of a wide array of more often than not particular, changing, and egocentric initiatives. She thus analyzes her ethnographic findings through the sociological concept of “self-help” and Olivier Fillieule’s notion of “social mobilization enterprise” (Olivier Fillieule, De l’objet de la definition à la definition de l’objet. De quoi traite finalement la sociologie des mouvements sociaux? Politique et Sociétés, 2009, vol. 28, p. 25). As such, she demonstrates how Juhapura internally transformed into a Muslim ghetto after the pogroms of 2002, notably through the “community of suffering” as a social homogenizing factor and the role of Islamic organizations in their immediate aftermath. However, these organizations’ preponderance has somewhat diminished over time to the benefit of more secular ones, both in light of the cronyism Islamic NGOs had created and also the increasing presence of upper caste Muslims within the locality. The latter’s growing involvement in the daily life of the ghetto has indeed brought in more infrastructures, particularly within the educational sector, and the administrative knowledge to organize and mediate relations between the population and the authorities. The effects of Juhapura’s ghettoization have thus paradoxically enabled more social mobility within the Muslim population, but also created economic boundaries within the locality itself, whilst strengthening its communal character.

With Domination et résistance de la minorité musulmane après le pogrom de 2002 à Ahmedabad, Charlotte Thomas has produced a contribution that is both welcomed, given the current gap within the literature regarding the aftermath of the 2002 pogroms in Gujarat, and remarkable in light of the social and administrative difficulty of examining such a sensitive topic. Furthermore, this dissertation also offers—through its mainly Francophone theoretical grounding—a novel approach to the study of social and political movements in India, academically dominated by Anglophone conceptual frameworks, and thus constitutes an opportune addition to the plurality of South Asian studies at large.

Jean-Philippe Dequen
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Max Planck Institute for European Legal History, Frankfurt

Primary Sources

Fieldwork Data
125 qualitative interviews
Non-participatory observation of different institutions within Juhapura (NGOs, Schools, Mosques etc.)

Dissertation Information

Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. 2014. 536 pp. Primary Advisor: Christophe Jaffrelot.

Image: a view of the ghetto of Juhapura and Sarkhej Road, the main road crossing the area (photograph by the author).

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