Book review: Malvika Maheshwari, Art Attacks: Violence and Offense-taking in India

Date01 June 2020
Published date01 June 2020
Subject MatterBook Reviews
116 Book Reviews
bases. Evidence comes from police and hospital records, as well as from municipal maps, court verdicts,
media reports and the author’s own interviews with participants in the pogrom/peace. This large body of
evidence is interrogated first quantitatively and then ‘ethnographically’ to establish the conditions of
existence for participation in violence/peace across space. The main insight proposed by Dhattiwala is
that rioters, arsonists and murderers were least likely to attack enclaves from which there was no obvious
escape route (common sense, not spatial determinism, as the author explains (p. 93)) or where local
leaders used ‘informal social controls to monitor and sanction residents’ (including Muslims trying to
flee or Hindus trying to spark a riot (p. 168)).
Put like this, it might be thought that Dhattiwala is confirming the Varshney thesis about bridging
social capital, but, wisely, if she does so locally, she does so in full knowledge that, across Ahmedabad
and Gujarat in 2002, it was the BJP that was stoking and organizing ethnic violence in support of its
political ambitions—and not least in those areas where it was not yet, but could hope to be, politically
dominant. Put like this, too, we can both acknowledge the contribution that Dhattiwala has made to
on-going debates on ethnic violence and peace in India, while also recognizing—as the author
recognizes—that some of the main conclusions in Keeping the Peace depend on vary small sample sizes
(around which a large statistical scaffold is sometimes built, not always plausibly) and, in truth, far less
‘ethnography’ than the author promises at the outset of the book.
Keeping the Peace is well worth reading and adds significantly to a powerful and growing literature
on ethnic violence in India. Its one major conclusion is an important one. What Keeping the Peace does
not offer much of are first-hand accounts of the reasons for participating or not participating in ethnic
violence. In this particular sense, Keeping the Peace is a promise unfulfilled.
Stuart Corbridge
Durham University
Durham, United Kingdom
Malvika Maheshwari, Art Attacks: Violence and Offense-taking in India. Oxford University Press. 2019. 372
pages. `995.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020918070
Discussions on attacks on artistic freedom veer towards a fairytale-like simplicity with the heroic martyr
of free speech on one side and vicious trolls and monsters threatening to overrun the kingdom of
liberalism on the other. As with all fairy tales there is generally a kernel of truth in the narrative but the
repeatedly telling of the story flattens out the moral complexities underlying the tale. The flourishing
business of art vandalism in India over the decades is one such story that has been reduced to a cyclical
narrative of illiberal outrage at creative expression followed by a liberal disavowal of violence and
intolerance as being repugnant to democratic and constitutional values.
An analytical refusal to succumb to this one-dimensional account is what motivates Malvika
Maheshwari’s timely and layered engagement with art, violence and offence-taking in India. With an
understatement reminiscent of Avery Gordon’s famous opening lines in ghostly matters (‘That life is
complicated may seem a banal expression of the obvious, but it is nonetheless a profound theoretical
statement—perhaps the most important theoretical statement of our time’), Maheshwari begins her third
chapter with the assertion that ‘right to freedom of speech and expression has been a complicated issue
throughout the life of the independent Indian state’. The book responds to this complexity by

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