Rowena Robinson, Tremors of Violence. Muslim Survivors of Ethnic Strife in Western India
New Delhi: Sage, 2005. 261 pages, 3 maps, € 28.99. ISBN 0-7619-3408-1
The communal riots in Mumbai after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and even more those engulfing central Gujarat in spring 2002, mark turning points in India's recent political and social history. Several thousand people – mostly Muslims – were murdered and even more seriously injured, displaced or economically affected. So far, their plight has, however, mostly been reduced to a building brick for wider arguments about Indian secularism, citizenship rights, or state-society relations. Important as these issues may be, there has rarely been a sensitive study which listens to the survivors themselves. Rowena Robinson's book closes this gap with a carefully crafted ethnographic account of the aftermath of mass violence.
In her introduction, she reflects the responsibility of social scientists in times of rising Islamophobia and emphatically states her intention not just "to talk about Muslims [but], what is of greater significance, to listen to them: their speech and their silences, imperatives and equivocations. Categorized as `Other´, taunted as Pakistani if not vilified as terrorist, the Muslim in India today is an anonymous and frightening figure. [Thus] the time and moment to speak was now; for if we did not we might find that our reticence had cost us our world" (23). Throughout, she remains sensitive to the political implications of her work, and in fact concludes it with a string of policy recommendations, ranging from police reform to better education. Her analysis however turns truly political in a more subtle way, too: in her insistence to take seriously the irreducable diversity of personal experience in the face of widespread groupism in public and academic discourse.
In the main chapters of her book, she thus listens closely to the personal "worlds of violence remembered and the images along which these recollections are borne" (33). Chapter two engages with two particularly powerful images: the increasing spatial segregation of urban living – which is rampant in Ahmedabad and still in progress in Mumbai – and the disturbing implication of state authorities in communal violence. The latter point in particular is worth remembering these days, when Gujarati chief minister Narendra Modi fashions himself as prime ministerial candidate; the dismissive attitude of his administration in fact marks the strongest difference between the Gujarat riots in 2002 and the violence in Mumbai a decade earlier. After a short but comprehensive statistical intermezzo in chapter three – which places the themes of her book in their wider context –, Rowena Robinson moves on to discuss a number of narratives in more detail in chapters four and five, paying special attention to gender differences. In many womens' narratives, for instance, trauma manifests itself in the ruptures of language itself – and was only tentatively integrated into wider life histories. This longterm process never quite results in a return to normalcy, however – it only ever constitutes a strained and tension-filled "new normal", often by blending the extraordinary violence of riots with the hardships and economic violence of the everyday. In her analysis of male voices, the author in turn arrives at a key concern of her inquiry: the troubled notion of community. She carefully traces how violence creates "a sense of belonging to a single, and threatened, community" (154), resulting in an overt assertion of unity while simultaneously glossing over sharp sectarian and political differences. Taking recourse to Agnes Heller's writing on personality and individuality, Rowena Robinson explores this paradox by demonstrating how activism in the wake of communal violence challenges earlier religious and secular certainties and opens up creative possibilities of reforming oneself and one's world. Consequently, chapter five ends with an exploration of the considerable diversity of Muslim civil society and Muslims in civil society, a theme broadened in chapter six to include "more ordinary members of the Muslim community, who categorically do not identify themselves as 'religious' leaders, for whom work in relief and rehabilitation has woven into a wider concern with social activism and improvement within the community" (196).
Rowena Robinson's account of post-riot Mumbai and Gujarat is engaging and persuasive, while the interweaving of individual voices and wider concerns reveals considerable sociological skill. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that her book leaves implicit most of the methodological and conceptual questions involved in taking individual diversity seriously. One would want to learn more about the hows and whys of her analysis, precisely because the result of her craftsmanship is so compelling. Likewise, her terminology often remains unclear – be it her preference for "ethnic strife" rather than "communalism", "Western India", rather than Gujarat and Mumbai, or "survivors" rather than "victims". All of these terms imply conceptual decisions, which would have warranted a more explicit justification – as would have been a more systematic exploitation of the comparative angle in her work.
Her main point is however very well taken: social scientists should not be content with confronting communalism, they should also unpack the underlying notion of community as such – a notion which begs explanation precisely due to its discursive omnipresence. In fact, the author herself relates that most of her interlocutors wanted her to write up their often painful stories, and to write them up well, for one specific reason: they believed that only by doing so their individual voices would be heard. Overall, Rowena Robinson truly excels in this considerable task, which makes her book is one of the finest studies on the aftermath of communal riots in contemporary India.