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Riots In France - Lessons For India

By Sambaiah Gundimeda

18 November, 2005

"We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principle of life. (.) . In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. (.) We must remove this contradiction at the earlier moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up."

- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

I still remember my history lecturer during 'Intermediate' level, quoting a famous historian as an introduction to his lecture on the French Revolution. Though I don't remember the name of the historian, the quotation somehow became part of my memory. The quote is: '.while the poor die of hunger and poverty the rich die of indigestion of food and alcohol'. The recent riots in the suburbs of Paris and other cities in France made me recall the quote and indubitably there seems to be a comparison between the socio-economic conditions prior to the French Revolution and the current conditions of the Blacks and Arabs in today's France. After a gap of 216 years since the French Revolution, the high drama is being re-enacted with the same theme: extravaganza vs. deprivation. Of course, to the latter theme, a sub-theme, but an important one, is now added: alienation. The only difference or rather change is the cast. Earlier the drama was set between the French citizens and the Monarchy, now between the State, civil society and the descendants of Black and Arab immigrants. Thus, history has once again repeated itself in post-revolutionary France.

At the time of composing these lines the cities in France are engulfed with flames. The government has clasped its hands, the police are in disarray and the people are shocked, confused and anxious. Hundreds of cars, dozens of super markets, pubs, social clubs and billions worth of properties, and importantly the symbols of State like libraries, school (note the similarities with French revolution, where the demolition of the state symbols was seen as the flattening of the State power) have all gone up in flames. Who is to blame? The rioters? The government or the civil society? While one should not have any reservations about condemning the violence and destruction, one equally should not mince ones words in apportioning blame to the government and civil society for knowingly ignoring, for more than 30 years, the genuine grievances suffered by more than five million Muslims and African communities living in that country.

The immediate cause that ignited the riots was the death of two young boys of African origin, who allegedly ran away from the police. But this is only a tip of ice-berg. The simmering problems of alienation, poverty and unemployment are the real reasons for the curren crisis. Discrimination against the Blacks and Arabs is notoriously visible in the French society.
They are shunted into poor housing that is run-down and graffiti-ridden, embodied by the tower-blocks that stretch for miles. They are denied employment and are kept in poverty by a system that does not care about them. In such deplorable conditions, it appears the victims would not have had a choice but to resort to rioting as the only way to draw attention to their plight. While the French Prime Minister seems to admit that mistakes were made and promised to be 'fair', the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy appears to be following the path of L.K. Advani. During the Mandal flames by appealing to the Hindu right-wing forces and exploiting the religious sentiments of the ordinary people Advani and his BJP successfully sidelined the 'real issues' raised by Mandal confrontations and gained political mileage, which ultimately secured government for the party. Nicolas Sarkozy, with an eye on the next presidential elections, is also trying to take advantage of an unfortunate crisis. He is playing politics with the situation by appealing to the most basic and resentful attitudes of conservative France. Whilst this might gain him some political capital and he may even achieve his ambition to be President after the next election, neverthe less, this will not solve the problem. In fact, it pushes the problem out of the frying pan into the fire, which could result in the further alienation of the immigrant communities and widen the gulf between races.

Is there anything that we could learn from the Paris experience or similar experiences in the US and the UK in the 1960s and 1980s respectively? An economic boom, skilled professionals and highly developed institutions are all poised to make India one of the world's most influential powers in the coming years. We are happy and proud about it. Yet, there are certain questions and issues that demand our attention: we as a country will certainly sooner or later encounter two questions: who are the beneficiaries of this economic development and what about those who are excluded and alienated from this process? India of today is a picture of paradox. On the one side, it is richer, professional, greatly advanced in technology and plays a significant role in international affairs, more than at any time in the near past.

But the other side of it is a shocking and appalling that craves attention from the government and civil society at large. This side of India is characterised by poverty, squalor, hunger, unemployment, and lack of housing etc. The conditions here are startlingly worse than the France of Blacks and Arabs. People across castes, communities and religions, have become victims to the unjustified policies of liberalisation-privatisation and globalisation. They are displaced from traditional occupations and are waiting for their governments to provide alternative livelihoods. The problems of the Dalits are more formidable than any other community in India. They are doubly victimised, due to globalisation as well as to the continuation of traditional social practices, the twin reasons that are inflicting deprivation and causing a sense of alienation.

The caste Hindu society, despite countless social and political movements by the Dalits, both in colonial and post-colonial India, is yet to accept them as fellow citizens with equality and dignity. The state and the civil society is known for its patronage strategies and appeasement of the oppressed, especially at times when faced with a backlash from the Dalits against exploitation and discriminatory practices and their demands for a rightful share of political power , economic development and a dignified place in the socio-cultural arenas. The reservations in government jobs and measures for economic empowerment are known inducements. This strategy has, surely, been assisting the state in reducing the anger of the Dalits and halts the momentum of the social movements. But this is only momentary in the sense that the reservation measures are affirmative in nature rather than transformative. The policy as not eliminated the root of the Dalits' problems. A few Individuals from this section of society may have benefited from these affirmative measures, but they neither helped the group as a whole nor transformed their lives.

Most of them continue to live a life of deprivation, much like their parents' generation some 55 years ago. The dominant political parties though, owing to constitutional obligations allocate reserved quota of seats, but do not care to give a proper voice to these exploited to allow
them to address genuine problems.

Further more, the so-called Dalit political parties and their much abused slogans of 'social revolution' and self-assertion, appears, to be all rhetoric rather than something more substantial. For, they did not deliver the Dalits either from economic marginalisation or from social segregation. The private sector, which is the largest employer, does not fill the higher positions with the candidates belonging to this group, despite the fact that they do possess the right qualifications. The cultural arena of the country has been hegemonised by the Brahmanical castes and is a sphere where the Dalit cultural forms are not given even a symbolic recognition. One remarkable aspect about the Dalits is that despite all these forms of oppression and exploitation they possess enough fortitude to continue to express their grievances in a peaceful and acceptable manner. Importantly, unlike Blacks either in France or in the UK or better still in the US, the Dalits or the other social under-classes in India, has never resorted to violence to articulate their anger and anguish. Yet, the continuing disparities: alienation from socio-economic and cultural arenas, unemployment and rampant poverty, have tested their patience.

The riots in France, no doubt, have created a crisis, but it also, has provided an opportunity to remedy the causes of the crisis. The French government and its society should grab this occasion to address the hitherto ignored inequalities that are arising from socio-economic structures and cultural differences. While the measures to eradicate poverty and employment opportunities remedy the structural inequalities, recognition of cultural differences of the Blacks and Arabs will remedy the cultural inequalities. More importantly a change of attitude both among the Whites and Blacks is the need of the hour, which in the long-run may pave the way for a multi-cultural society in France. In India, we should learn from the experiences of the other countries, particularly from the present crisis, lest we witness Ambedkar's prophetic words and experience similar riots in the near future.

Sambaiah Gundimeda Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Sam Gundimeda
SOAS, University of London
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London WC1H 9EE

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