Mass violence of the kind in Manipur and Haryana evokes an array of emotions in those watching the news from their living rooms. Despair, anger, empathy, fear, hate, regret, even pride, depending on what side of the fence they are. But do emotions provoke people to inflict such violence? Rarely – despite the government’s perpetual defence of blaming emotional mayhem for mass violence.

The predictive power of emotions on violent action is unclear. As the sociologist Charles Tilly noted, “The trouble with letting a lot depend on intentions is intentions are mixed and hard to discern.” Indeed, emotions do matter in encouraging attackers or morally justifying violence. Hate can make people truly believe that attacks on their “blood enemies” are morally and legally just.

But the act of inflicting physical violence on a person is distinct from the intent to physically harm the person. Studies find hardly any link of hate, fear and anger with actual violent behaviour.

Once it is understood that the perpetrators of mass attacks are almost never emotionally handicapped, one can convincingly shatter the government’s eternally shifting narrative: blaming emotionally-blinded “mobs” when violence is committed by Hindus and blaming premeditation when committed by non-Hindus.

Blaming anger are a motive is the default response of the state when a minority group is attacked. Governments over the years, be it the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party, have pushed the idea that people fight “spontaneously” because they are “very angry”. If this were true, people would likely be fighting all the time, given how pervasive anger is. But this does not happen because anger is an urgent emotion. As political theorist Jon Elster has argued, anger numbs the cognitive abilities. It is prone to decay with time, so therefore dissipates quickly. An angry person’s threats are usually bluster and seldom lead to physical violence.

On the rare occasion that anger provokes a person to attack, their selection of targets is not orderly – not like the systematic attacks on members of one group, as seen in Manipur, Haryana and previously in many other episodes targeted mass attacks, such as on Muslims in Gujarat 2002, Muzaffarnagar 2013 and Delhi 2020 or on Sikhs in Delhi 1984.

An impulsive altercation or a single stone-pelting incident can, indeed, be spontaneous but the extended spirals of violence are not. When weapons are brought in advance, as in the case of Manipur and Haryana, it suggests premeditation and intent to harm. It is not an anger-motivated “crime of passion”.

A mahapanchayat called by Hindu outfits at Pondri village in Haryana's Palwal district on August 13. Credit: PTI.

One of the most influential scholars of violence, Randall Collins, has often joked about how easily actors in movies pick up fights because, in reality, people are incompetent at violence – they freeze with fear and tension when faced with the prospect of a physical confrontation. To be able to kill or injure, one must overcome emotions, especially fear and tension, rather than be motivated by them.

It is not surprising, then, that the select few who front violent attacks – whether in ethnic riots in India or elsewhere in the world – have usually done it before. The abysmal rate of convictions of rioters in India means that these “specialists” stick around for long. They are usually government heavies and often share the same neighbourhood as their victims, as I show in my research. Familiarity of the area gives them the advantage of escaping unscathed if at all the attack goes awry.

In the words of political scientist, Donald L Horowitz, rarely do rioters “miscalculate their own tactics and power, the intentions of the police, or the response of the targets, such that they suffered more casualties than the targets did”.

In Ahmedabad in 2002, rioters fit this profile perfectly: they selected their victims carefully and ensured that they had a safe path of retreat after the attack. It follows, then, that those who commit acts of violence – rape, arson, killing – are not emotionally handicapped. They are fully coherent when they commit ghastly attacks and cannot be subjects of omnibus first information reports where emotionally-charged and, therefore, nameless “mobs” are blamed for a single episode of violence.

In one of the most persuasive accounts of emotions and violence in the study of ethnic massacres in 20th century eastern Europe and in Iraq, MIT political scientist Roger Petersen rejected that notion that anger, fear and hate directly influenced violent acts. Instead, he pinned down resentment – an emotion centred on group status – as the main cause of violence.

Resentment is the bitterness that emerges when a group that is at the top of a political hierarchy is put below another group. This status reversal may be real, for example, minority Tutsis were the local elites in colonial Rwanda, or a myth, such as Jews are all-powerful or that the 13% of Muslims in India will one day overtake 85% of Hindus demographically and economically. Each instance has resulted in extreme violence against the group – Tutsis, Jews or Muslims – that is believed to be undeserving of their status.

This also means that the study of emotions has a silver lining. That propaganda does not automatically translate into actual physical violence. It is only when a group is historically resented and the state actively fuels the resentments for instrumental gains – electoral dividends in the case of India – violence against members of the group becomes easier: violence is now perceived to be morally righteous and retributive for it is being inflicted on a “deserving” people.

For generating propaganda that morally legitimises violence, the state must be blamed. The state must be blamed when it shirks responsibility and manipulates people into thinking that perpetrators are emotionally predisposed to violence. A violent attack in a riot is not a solo performance: it depends on interactions with others on the ground. Prolonged systematic attacks are impossible without resources, both institutional and moral.

There is an urgent need for those on the side of the law and advocacy to get a better sense of how mass violence works to be able to convincingly hold governments and those who perpetrate violence accountable.

Raheel Dhattiwala is an independent sociologist. She is the Baden-Württemberg Fellow ’23 at the University of Heidelberg and author of the book Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002 (Cambridge University Press 2019).