Muzaffarnagar Riots Perils of a Patronage Democracy


Clientelistic politics is fuelling the current
upsurge of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh. When the channels that
provide access to state resources are organised around social divisions,
the potential power-shifts that elections bring about provide ample
motivation for political elites as well as common voters to mobilise.

Ward Berenschot (
is a political scientist and author of Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim
Violence and the Indian State (Columbia University Press/Rupa
Publications, 2013).

The recent upsurge of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has
allayed hopes that India’s economic growth would gradually put an end to
a long history of Hindu-Muslim strife. Since 7 September 2013 at least
52 people (15 Hindus and 37 Muslims) have died and 50,000 people were
displaced around the town of Muzaffarnagar. Subsequently about 30
children have frozen to death due to the appalling conditions in the
refugee camps where thousands are still staying out of fear of returning
to their ransacked homes.

The immediate trigger had been a dispute over, apparently, the
stalking of a girl. This dispute led to the death of the alleged
stalker, a Muslim, and two family members of the girl, Hindu Jat
farmers. In this region Muslims have been working the field of Jat
farmers for generations, but this interdependence did not prevent
politicians from both communities to react to the incident with
incendiary speeches. As the UP government wavered in its response and
community mobilisation got underway, a gruesome spectacle of mass
violence enfolded. The Muzaffarnagar riots have been the largest
outburst since the 2002 violence in Gujarat, but it is by no means an
isolated incident: after the Samajwadi Party (SP) under Akhilesh Yadav
came to power in UP in March 2012, the police has counted 39 outbursts
communal riots (Rai 2013).

To explain this upsurge, we need to go beyond the usual political
incriminations and look at the nature of UP’s political arena instead.
Sure enough, there are plenty of reasons to blame political strategising
for the violence. Ahead of the 2014 general elections, Bharatiya
J­anata Party (BJP) badly needs to recover lost ground in UP. BJP
leaders like Sangeet Som seem to have taken to this task by inciting
violence and circulating fake videos. He and other BJP leaders have been
vitiating the atmosphere with a­ngry speeches during a large maha­panchayat
meeting of the Jat community on 7 September 2013. Their militant
d­efence of the Jat community seems a calculated attempt to solidify
Hindu support.

Similarly, there are good reasons to suspect that the wavering
response of Yadav’s government have been guided by the need to maintain
the support of UP’s Muslim community, so crucial for SP’s electoral
victory in the 2012 state elections. This might explain the perceived
bias of the police against the Jat community, the release of Muslim
suspects and the transferring of police officials who arrested these
suspects. Because of these observations it has been argued that the
recent violence is the ­result of an implicit “deal” between the BJP and
SP, intended to polarise society along communal line (see Centre for
Policy Analysis 2013; Rao et al 2013). Intense polarisation might serve
to weaken the mobilisational capacity of competing political parties
like Bahujan ­Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress.

Such political machinations are a recurring element of reporting on
communal riots and they also figure prominently in academic explanations
for India’s Hindu-Muslim violence. They are, however, unsatisfying on
two accounts: firstly, such a focus on the strategies of political
elites leaves unexplained why common villagers – who do not share the
same political interests – could be instigated to participate in the
violence. And secondly, the observation that politicians can benefit
from the resulting social polarisation begs the question: what is it
about India’s political arena that makes social polarisation such a
profitable ­political strategy?

After a year-long period of fieldwork on the organisation behind
Gujarat’s 2002 violence, I feel that the answer to these questions lies
in the dependence of particularly poorer citizens on patronage networks
to gain access to state institutions. Such an analysis is not meant to
refute political explanations for violence, nor does it exonerate
individuals of their responsibility for stoking communal embers. But it
might help to understand why they do so.

Patronage networks are exchange networks: through these channels
political elites mobilise (electoral) support – votes and campaign
support, but also campaign budgets – while compensating their supporters
by providing them with access to state resources such as jobs, public
services or business contracts. The widespread dependence of citizens on
such patronage networks is strengthened by a largely self-enforcing
mechanism: as citizens reward politicians for providing them with access
to state resources, political success is largely premised on developing
control over the functioning of state bureaucracies, which in turn
reinforces the dependence of voters on political mediation. It is
because of this entrenched political meddling in the functioning of
state bureaucracies that India has been called a “patronage democracy”.

Infrastructure for Violence

So what does this dependence on p­atro­nage networks have to do with
the violence that engulfs a community after a relatively small incident
such as eve-teasing? A focus on the functioning of these patronage
networks yield two important mechanisms of how and why a patronage
democracy engenders – under certain conditions – communal violence. One
mechanism is related to the actual organisation of violence, the other
to the political exploitation of social identities.

First, the organisation of violence. A recurring element in studies
on the “groundwork” of UP’s politics are descriptions of how political
parties are ­using their control over the distribution of state
researchers to attract and reward voters (Chandra 2004). Such
clientelistic strategies require effective networks: informal links
between local (community) leaders, political workers and state officials
are necessary to ­ensure that efforts to distribute state ­resources –
jobs, public services, government contracts, etc – will indeed be
reciprocated by voters at the time of elections.

Furthermore, clientelistic strategies lead to the politicisation of
state bureau­cracies. The inability of police officials in UP to arrest
politically well-­connected criminals – yielding perceptions of a
“goonda raj” – is just one visible effect of the control that
politicians wield over the bureaucracy. As a result, for less-privileged
citizens the access to, say, a secure land title, a government job or a
loan is not based on one’s individual rights as citizens but rather the
result of the negotiations and exchanges of ­favours with political
intermediaries (Jeffrey 2002).

In this way clientelistic electoral strategies are generating
widespread patronage networks that, at times of communal tensions, can
serve as the infrastructure for the mobilisation of mobs and the
­organisation of violence. Not just party members or local strongmen but
also criminal actors, state officials, businessmen and police officers
derive at least a part of their livelihood from the (business)
opportunities and state resources that can be obtained through political
connections. Such benefits give these actors various incentives to
nurture their contacts with politicians and influential bureaucrats.
These incentives make the instigation of violence possible: the capacity
of political actors to mobilise large mobs, distribute weapons, and
prevent police intervention is related to the rewards that individuals
at lower levels in the clientelistic pyramid can reap by performing
favours for their patrons.

Police, Goondas, Leaders

Take, for example, the failure of police officials to stem the
violence and the ­accusations that minister Azam Khan ­ordered the
transfer of police officials and a district magistrate for arresting
Muslims. For police officials maintaining good relations with
politicians serves to streamline a steady stream of bribes. By crossing
politicians, by for example, attempting to prevent violence, police
officials risk being transferred to “punishment postings”. Given the
considerable bribe they often had to pay to secure a good posting, such a
transfer would imply a serious financial risk. As a result of this
dependency on political ­patrons the police force cannot function as a
bulwark against the instigation of ethnic violence; the control of
politicians over the postings of police officers undermines the capacity
and willingness of individual officers to function as custodians of the

A similar argument can be made about another important type of
contributors to communal violence: local criminals or goondas. Patronage
channels need individuals known for their capacity for violence, not
only for the (campaign) money that their illegal activities bring in,
but also because of the need for “muscle power” to establish local
authority to provide protection in the absence of a fully sovereign
police force. For their part, local goondas face strong
incentives to attach themselves to political patrons, since their
livelihoods – extortion, gambling, illegal trade, etc – ­often depends
on political contacts to ward off police intervention. As a result
political actors dispose of a lot of “muscle power” that can be asked to
take the lead during outbursts of violence.

A third group of contributors are community leaders. Local leaders
come in various forms and sizes, but a recurring aspect of local
leadership is that it is bound with a capacity to “get things done”, i
e, to deal with state institutions on behalf of their community members
(Krishna 2007). For ambitious indivi­duals, the development of ties with
influential power holders can thus hardly be avoided – which makes them
and their community vulnerable to political manipulation. In a similar
manner one can analyse the local popularity of militant organisations
like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the Rashtriya Swayam­sevak Sangh
(RSS). Their appeal is not just based on ideology or the invocation of a
shared enemy. Their popularity is also related to the way these
organisations are integrated into local patronage channels and,
consequently, the capacity of these organisations to provide followers
with a government job, a business opportunity or preferential treatment
by the police.

In short: the networks involved in the instigation and perpetration
of violence are not just “institutionalised riot ­systems” (Brass 2003),
they are patronage networks. Their capacity to instigate violence is
related to their capacity to provide access to state resources.

Patronage and Identity Politics

A second important mechanism linking the daily machinations of a
patronage democracy to outbursts of violence concerns identity politics.
It is often commented that India’s pervasive identity politics stems
from the usefulness of ­social identities to mobilise electoral support.
A focus on the intricacies of ­clientelistic exchanges can help
understand why this is so.

When access to public services is shaped by political intercession
rather than policy provisions, candidates do not need to convince voters
of the effectiveness or reasonableness of policy proposals. They need
to find ways to credibly convey the promise that after elections they
will be willing to devote time and energy to solve their problems.
Social identities provide useful means to convey this promise. A shared
social identity – whether in terms of caste, regional background or
religion – provides a candidate with the (symbolic) arguments to
convince voters that he will be “their man” and empathises with their
needs. The different identity dimensions among the electorate are
instruments for politicians to make these promises more convincing.
Through the use of different identity symbols, and through the
invocation of antagonisms between voters, politicians can convey their
most important message: after the elections I will be more helpful to
you than other candidates.

Furthermore, a clientelistic political arena generates important
incentives for political leaders, their clients as well as brokers to
structure their clientelistic exchanges along the lines of social
divisions such as religion or caste. As both voters and politicians
exchange political support for access to state resources, ethnicity
provides them with a very useful tool to do so. A shared caste
background of candidates gives voters some reassurance that an elected
candidate will actually be of help after the elections to deal with
state institutions. For politicians the invocation of identity symbols
provides them with a useful means to convey a credible promise to the
electorate that they will be more helpful to the voter then the opposing
political party.

And for brokers – the local leaders and “fixers” who mediate the
interaction bet­ween politician and voters – their leadership of a
community can be used to reassure politicians of their capacity to
deliver a large number of votes. As politicians need to use their
limited resources efficiently, they prefer to deal with brokers who
possess authority over a large number of voters. In the absence of
strong civil society organisations (like trade unions, cooperatives,
business organisations), brokers can invoke their membership of a
community to reassure politicians of their capacity to deliver a large
number of votes. After elections, this membership is again invoked to
pressurise politicians into delivering the promised public resources.

Community Mobilisation

This imperative to organise election campaigns around us-them
divisions stimulates politicians to engage in attempts to manipulate the
importance that voters attach to different identity dimensions. While,
for example, the BJP target a religious divide, BSP, Congress and SP
particularly target caste-divisions. As political campaigns are thus
organised around different identity dimensions – caste, religion as well
as class and region – electoral success depends to a certain extent on
heightening the public awareness of one such dimension at the expense of
other dimensions.

Campaign speeches of politicians can often be interpreted as attempts
to manipulate this salience of “their” identity dimension. Outbursts of
communal violence serve this purpose very effectively: by polarising
society along a religious divide, such violence hinders the mobilisation
efforts of parties who target caste divisions. A patronage democracy
thus stimulates a constant manipulation of the importance that people
attach to different dimensions of their social identities.

The process of invoking social divisions to facilitate clientelistic
exchanges has the important side effect of associating the membership of
a community to the access to (state) resources. As the contacts and
solidarity that these networks offered proved essential to secure
education, healthcare or security, the impression is generated that the
election of someone from another community to a key position would form a
real threat to one’s well-being and one’s chances to succeed in life.
When the networks that provide access to state resources become
organised around social divisions, the potential power-shifts that
elections bring about, thus provide ample moti­vation for not only
elites but also their f­ollowers to mobilise.

In this way one could interpret the remark of a Jat farmer from
Muzaffarnagar that, “There will be no peace until the balance of power
is sorted out” (Jha 2013). This remark is not just about community
honour. As Muslim votes have helped the SP to come to power in UP, their
access to state institutions, particularly the police, has improved.
This increased closeness to state authorities yields not only material
benefits, but also symbolically shifts perceptions of power and
superiority between com­munities. Take this quotation from a Meerut
resident: “This government has been trying to show itself as pro-Muslim.
As a result, young and irresponsible groups among Muslims too race
about on mobikes, violate traffic signals and, when stopped, stick their
mobiles on the ears of the policeman and put a local leader on the
line, frightening the cop” (Chishti 2013).

Such community-based shifts in access to state institutions create
tensions. In this way the fragmented and versatile nature of local
patronage channels can help explain the current upsurge in violence in
UP. The national elections in 2014 are creating tension in UP not only
because Narendra Modi’s candidacy is bringing Muslim-Hindu divisions to
the fore, but also because these elections provide an occasion for local
communities to rally against (or defend) uneven access to state

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