Analysis: Are Riots Mindless?

Posted on August 22, 2012 in Society

By Pallavi Ghosh:

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his analysis of the ‘carnivalesque’, observes that the act of subversion is a state-sponsored act. The space allotted for subversion is well within the social boundaries wherein the release acts a social catharsis diluting the sense of repression and dissent. Therefore, we see that the actions within the ambit of the ‘carnivalesque’ are not beyond social comprehension. It is rather a form of retreat if not regression to a mode of existence wherein the primal instincts are let loose without any sense of social responsibility or accountability.

From this viewpoint/perspective, it is interesting to note the similarities that seem to surface between the festive mode and the extremely violent mode of riots. It appears to me that during such apparently mindless events involving large-scale destruction there is the opportunity to get away with what is otherwise ‘forbidden’ in our daily lives. In this way it becomes a violent and destructive release during the brief anarchy and suspension of rules and of the normative, which is rather very similar to the Bakhtinian notion of ‘carnivalesque’; the difference, however, lies in the fact that the latter is celebratory in its mode with less violent implications, while the former is of an extremely violent and destructive mode. The impulse that seems to fuel both forms of excesses is the notion of escaping punishment for these actions.

One might argue against this notion stating that these excesses can be rendered legally punishable in the post-riot situation. However, the cultural and communal support that an act of riot amasses needs to be taken into consideration here. The support of a collective is capable of creating an illusion of security, thereby; absolving the culprits of all crimes. The normative remains suspended during a riot as well. Therefore, for example- when the normative law is that one is forbidden from acting against one’s community, during a riot instances of violence directed towards one’s own community becomes a mode of reacting against the normative. Consequently we observe that riots do have a mind of their own. The mind in the case of the riots is that of a carnal and almost bestial release of the self that satisfies and asserts itself through violence. It is a sadistic pleasure that emerges out of this scenario. However, it is to be noted that the ‘carnivalesque’ with all its subversion is not violent.

Nevertheless, in both these circumstances the order is always a looming presence. It can be seen as order re-instated in many ways. Since, riots are considered to be ‘mindless’, therefore, one has the license to murder, loot, rape, kidnap and ‘enact’ other criminal acts. We consequently see that this destructive release becomes a spectacle of anarchy and disorder and provides the State an entry point to project itself as ‘Order’ itself. Can the State’s inaction or reluctance to action be interpreted as a strategic move then? A move that is in favour of its preservation of power. When there is action of any kind, what kind of action is displayed in a scenario of extreme violence and antipathy?

Let us then try to see how the State responds to a riot at different junctures. Let us then begin with an ongoing riot scenario and the State’s response to it. There can be different approaches to it; some of these are:

1. Imposition of either partial/complete curfew,
2. Allotment of patrol forces to quell or diffuse conflict and violence,
3. Deploying both the strategies, i.e.1 and 2, together.

These are generally always damage-control acts. However, there are post-massacre measures and actions ideally geared toward rehabilitation and justice. There emerges a problem in meting out justice as well. If justice means legal culpability and trial of each person complicit in the violence during the crime, what happens to those who are passively complicit, i.e. inaction itself becomes a mode of violence. If it includes inaction, does this make official inaction legally culpable along with social inaction. Are riots to be seen then as acts of social determinism or as individual instances of violence?

These phases deal with the circumstances when a state of urgency has already arrived and is either at the door-step or has exhausted itself. But what about the phase preceding both of them? This is, in my opinion, the actual space of prevention since the other two deals with damage-control rather than prevention of damage. This space has to necessarily look at the way subjectivities or identities are structured. This entails the project of making these subject positions less rigid and fixed so that there is a healthy acceptance of difference. It should also provide enough space for intervention with regard to contemporary interests and concerns. Therefore, the identity position one occupies be that of a religious belief or otherwise needs to be dynamic rather than static so that contemporary interest have the ability to renew one’s positioning.

It is difficult to conceive of a mind that is at once beyond logic during the riots as well as within logic after the same unless it is but a construct that one wants to believe or is a myth. There is an increasing necessity to accept and respect difference, which is, I think, in keeping with the notion of secularism as advocated by Harsh Mander.

In my opinion, dismissing the act of rioting as a mindless one perhaps tends to make it immune to a critical analysis of it. Consequently, the recognition of the fact that there is a mind or a social construction or a system of signification that makes space for such violent outbursts perhaps gives the opportunity to change that very mindset as such, a reading then inevitably calls for a change in the system of meaning and significations. Therefore, riots need to be seen in social, cultural, economical as well as political contexts in order to provide a better understanding of its forces as well as for enabling enhanced preventive measures.