Ashutosh Varshney is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Previously, he taught, among other places, at Harvard University as an assistant and associate professor of government.

The example of a state-led initiative – our third category of human intervention – is far and away the most dramatic. Bhiwandi, a town just outside Bombay, was infamous for Hindu- Muslim riots in the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1980s, the local police took the initiative in putting a stop to riots. The turning point was the arrival in June 1988 of a police chief for a three- year term.

Three-year postings are customary for police and administrative officers at the state level in India, unless riots break out or some other politically significant events take place. Suresh Khopade, a police officer in Maharashtra state, was appointed deputy commissioner of police for Bhiwandi. In his unpublished memoirs, Bhiwandi riots and After (n.d.), he has given a detailed account of initiatives he took between 1988-1991, a particularly violent period in India, during which the mobilization to destroy the Babri Mosque reached new heights.

Khopade’s achievements were widely hailed in political and journalistic circles, although the larger significance of his experiment—for the kinds of interventions that are possible and desirable in riot-prone towns—was not drawn. I will cite extensively from his memoirs and draw the larger implications. I am grateful to Julius Ribero, one of India’s most highly respected police officers of the post-independence era, for sharing the manuscript with me. In Ribero’s view as well, Khopade’s was an extraordinary initiative. Author’s interview with Julius Ribero, retired commissioner of police (Bombay), governor of Punjab, and ambassador to Romania, 2 August 1996, Bombay. For a report on Bhiwandi see A.R. Momin, “Bhiwandi Shows the Way,” Sunday Times of India, 10 January 1993.

In those three years, Bhiwandi was transformed from a town whose capacity for rioting had become legendary to one that could meticulously work for and keep communal peace, even in the worst of times, as between 1988 ad 1993. The key was building Hindu-Muslim contacts in an organized way and around common issues of concern. We do not yet know how long Bhiwandi’s communal peace will last, but peace has prevailed since 1988, a remarkable turnaround for a town known for its relentless communal hostility and frequent violence. The experiment raises a whole range of important issues about the possibility of local- level intervention in the building of civil society.

The town of Bhiwandi is a rather unlikely site for healthy and robust civic engagement. A center of small textile manufacturing, most of which exists in the informal sector, Bhiwandi is full of “sprawling hutment colonies, narrow streets, the never- ceasing rattling of powerlooms,” the town’s civic amenities are bursting at the seams under the increasing demands of the shanties mushrooming all round.” “Khopade, Bhiwandi Riots and After, preface" Moreover, Hindus and Muslims tend to live in segregated neighborhoods.

Undeterred by this setting and the town’s history of violence, the police chief argued that instead of fighting the fires when they broke out, it was better for the police to bring Hindus and Muslims together to create mutual understanding. The aim was to set up durable structures of peace. If the Hindus and Muslims could meet each other often enough and discuss common problems, a reservoir of communication and perhaps trust would be created, which in turn would play a peace-making role at the time of communal tensions. Thinking that “to be forewarned is to be forearmed,” the police chief decided to put together neighborhood committees (mohalla samitis) for the whole town, under his supervision.

Since segregated living was the norm in the town, each committee covered two adjacent neighborhoods and consisted of an equal number of Hindus and Muslims, selected on the basis of local knowledge. The committee members were those who “wielded considerable influence in their respective mohallas and had a clean record.” Special care was taken to ensure that “no communalist or known criminal” lacking a “genuine desire for peace” was selected. For every two or three committees, one police officer was appointed to act as liaison officer. Wherever available, the committee members included highly respected professionals such as doctors and advocates. But in the poorest neighborhoods, where no such professionals were present, the committees consisted of “coolies and even housewives. Whether professionals, coolies, or housewives, the only condition was that committee members be respected by their neighbors for probity and goodwill, for which local knowledge was used, and have no criminal records, for which police data were checked.

Seventy committees were created to cover the entire town. They would discuss “matters of mutual concern.”  They would meet as necessary, at least once a week normally but daily in times of tension, with a police officer presiding. And as time wore on, they turned out to be so successful that even nonmembers started attending important meetings, thus broadening “the base of mutual confidence.”

During 1988-91, the nationwide mobilization sponsored by the Hindu nationalists for the destruction of the Baburi mosque and “liberation” of Ram’s birthplace was at its peak. As a consequence, communal tensions in much of India were high, and there were many moments of tension and bitterness in Bhiwandi as well. But “when passions ran high, members on both sides came together and voluntarily undertook the task of patrolling the streets for nights on end. Rumours were suppressed on the spot and rumour-mongers handed over to the police. . . . [As a result], the evil-doers preferred to lie low. . . .[and] were totally isolated by the constant vigilance against them by committee members.”

In 1991, as the police chief left Bhiwandi for his next posting, his successor did not dislodge the committees. He sought instead to continue the arrangement. The utility of continuation was soon brilliantly illustrated. By the time the Baburi mosque was torn down in December 1992, Bhiwandi’s citizens, both Hindus and Muslims, had developed such mutual understanding, confidence, and resolve that they successfully kept the peace of their neighborhoods and town. Not a single life was lost.

Bhiwandi’s peace in the aftermath of the mosque demolition was a remarkable development—not only because it had such an awful past but also because it was the period of India’s worst post-partition violence. Moreover, rioting came as close to Bhiwandi as the neigh boring city of Bombay. In December 1992 and January 1993, Bombay witnessed massive riots. Given the proximity of Bombay, rumors of the worst kind floated in and out of Bhiwandi, but they failed to trigger riots. A fierce communal storm thus passed Bhiwandi by, without shaking its new civic edifice.

Were the Bhiwandi police communally biased against the Muslim? If they were how was peace kept? The police chief freely admits that “many among the rank and file in the police were victims of communal propaganda.” But that did not prevent him from either working with these policemen in undertaking the experiment or from achieving success. We don’t know for sure whether the educational campaigns launched by the police chief were able to transform the hearts and minds of the rank and file.

It is, however, manifestly clear that even the biased policemen could not vitiate the final results, for they operated under two sets of constraints: leadership from above and public pressure from below. The visionary boss, given the hierarchical structure of the police, could not be defied, and once committees acquired a force of their own, the erring policemen, not simply the criminals, could be easily brought to book by citizen vigilance and pressure. With such pressures from above and below, the biases of the police, even if they remained, became more or less irrelevant.


What should one conclude from these examples? First, although it may too simplistic to say that Hindu-Muslim civic links can be forged at will, it would be equally wrong to suggest that one must wait for transformative political moments, created by large social or political movements, before civil society can be rebuilt or desperately violent cities can be turned around. These examples generate confidence in the idea that small acts of human agency have a role of their own in the creation of integrative civic links. Indeed, inter-communal civic linkages can be forged even in highly unfavorable circumstances, such as Bhiwandi, and such bridges, if built, can provide a town with a strong immune system to deal with communal shocks.

Second, the view that blames the biases of the state-officials, especially the police, for riots needs an important amendment. That biases exist is perhaps beyond doubt. But the argument that they are primarily responsible for riots, or for the state’s failure to prevent them, is flawed. Police biases should, of course, be worked upon, or exposed when witnessed, but one does not have to wait until the biases disappear to work for and secure peace. One can effectively constrain the operation of biases if the right kinds of institutional pressures are created.

Third, the Bhiwandi experiment, in particular, questions the conventional wisdom that there is an adversarial relationship between the state and civil society. As argued above, civil society is a nonstate, not an antistate, space of our life whose vigor can be, though is not necessarily, promoted by the state. Civil society is typically anti-state when the state, intentionally or not, begins to undermine civic life. Because civic linkages were forged on the initiative of the local organ of the state, the Bhiwandi experiment suggests fruitful possibilities of a state-civil society synergy for stemming endemic violence. With a strong civic edifice in place, the state can prevent riots with considerable ease. Without building such an edifice, even the ablest state officials may not be able to prevent riots.

Further research, among other things, will clarify the boundaries that need to be put around the observations above. It will, for example, by very useful to learn whether the Bhiwandi experiment is exceptional or replicable. Although the main thrust of the Bhiwandi experiment is consistent with the principal arguments of this book, there is, in a methodological sense, a fundamental and important difference. The six cities selected in this book for in-depth analysis either maintained their violent or peaceful character through much of the twentieth century or in one case, Ahmedabad, where a decisive change did take place, it was in the direction of decline—from peace to violence. Because of what it set out to do, the books research design did not include a city where a transformation from endemic violence to peace took place, at least none as unambiguous as Bhiwandi. Of the six, no city was riot-prone for as long.

There is an important and generic issue here that suggests potentially fruitful lines of future inquiry. The way to turn violence-torn towns around is a problem not yet systematically investigated and understood by researchers and activists. A research design that selects such towns and cities and examines the transformative mechanisms in a methodologically defensible way should clarify the general lessons that can be drawn from the Bhiwandi experiment.

But, whatever we learn from future research, one thing is certain. There is no evidence in our materials that the state alone can bring about lasting peace in violence-torn areas. The state should begin to see civil society as a precious potential ally and think of the kinds of civic linkages that can promoter the cause of peace.


Competing nationalisms in South Asia

 By Paul R. Brass, Achin Vanaik, Asgharali Engineer

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

Quoted on Page 61

“In Bhiwandi, a town near Mumbai that had plunged into Hindu-Muslim violence in both 1970 and 1984, the deputy commissioner of police (DCP), kept tight control and thereby prevented riots there in 1992-93. He was following in the footsteps of Suresh Khopade, a previous deputy commissioner in charge of the town during the 1984 riots, who wrote a book prescribing certain steps for controlling violence: arresting known instigators of sectarian conflict as soon as sign of tension emerged, opening up a dialogue with the public, and setting up neighbourhood committees to oversee any confrontation between Hindus and Muslims.”


Media on Police Reforms Report

 By Mr. Abraham Kurien, Former Director General of Police, Prosecution, Uttar Pradesh

Mr. Abraham Kurien

Quoted on Page 13

Police Reforms can come about in basic three ways that is through legislation, executive instruction and individual initiatives. More often than not individual initiatives have proved more effective. In Maharashtra, provincial police service personnel, Mr. Kopde, formed a community police system called the Mohalla Committee in the district of Bhawindi which had frequent communal clashes. The Committee advocated frequent meetings between different communities encouraging greater interaction and community activities. Following the intervention, clashes stopped

The positive experience of inter-religious committees initiated by the valiant police officer Suresh Khopde, which worked well in Bhiwandi (1980s), near Mumbai has been lost on the policy makers. Should it not be obligatory on the authorities to be consulting with people from all religions before, during and after the violence? It is quite likely that if the bridges between communities are kept live the chances of violence will diminish despite the worst intentions of those wanting to bake their bread in the fire of sectarianism.