Revati Laul’s The Anatomy of Hate is that rare feat of slow, attentive journalism that succeeds in telling a complex story fully because Laul has taken the time and effort to tell it well. She follows the lives of three men involved to various degrees in the Gujarat riots of 2002 as well as the stories of the people who surround them – bosses, colleagues, family members. She set out to understand the people to whom violence was an instrument and a spectacle of power, to un-learn the ways in which we currently understand communal violence.

Similar to Sujatha Gidla’s Ant Among Elephants, The Anatomy Of Hate is a rare blend of accessible and engaging prose with journalistic inquiry. Laul pieced together the stories of three men who participated in the riots that targeted the Muslim minority in 2002 – dividing her narrative into before, on the day, and after to show how their lives led up to the day and how they were changed in the aftermath. One of the men is imprisoned, another works for the rehabilitation of the very people whose victimisation he supported, and the third occupies a shifty position between old prejudices and peace-making.

Laul spoke to about the intensive research that went into The Anatomy Of Hate, the specific communal realities that belie tension, the challenges of writing about brutal violence, the literature that shaped her writing, why one member of a family may have participated in the riots when another did not, and the work that lies ahead for journalists. Excerpts from the interview:

What did your research look like in the years before the first of the three men in your book agreed to be featured?
In 2003, the year after the riots, I was posted in Gujarat for NDTV. I’d gone to find out how an entire state had been radicalised. Almost every middle-class Hindu one spoke to either supported or believed what happened in 2002 to be correct. I began to ask myself, what’s the point of any work I do as a journalist if I am always speaking to the converted? How do I reach beyond the group of people who already believed what I am saying? Am I guilty of polarising people further between the liberal and the illiberal?

I was asking myself all these questions, but I didn’t find the answers. I moved back to Delhi feeling like a failure. I found myself back in Gujarat because of a couple of riot-related cases, and I met the man I call Pranav in the book. He had been an MA student in Social Science at the time of the riots when he’d accompanied his friends as a voyeur. He said that Gujarat had been made up of two groups at the time – those being slaughtered and those celebrating.

When he graduated, the only work he could find was with an organisation that helped rehabilitate the very people whose destruction he had cheered on during the riots. When I met him, he was someone undergoing a massive transformation. I didn’t know till that moment that it was possible to change such deeply held social prejudices, that it was possible for that hate to be released.

It made me realise I was guilty of seeing hate as static, that I obviously didn’t know the first thing about hate. It took me ten years to convince Pranav to be a part of this book, and when he did agree, I knew I had to move to Gujarat to tell his story. But not just his story. Pranav was at the shallow end of the spectrum of people that made up the mob. I realised I also need to explore the other end of the spectrum – people who’d committed heinous crimes as part of the mob. I started by looking at the Naroda Patiya case which was one of the worst atrocities from 2002 where 97 people were killed on one day on one street, and that’s how I zeroed in on Suresh.

I spent the next three years making a list of all the riot-torn districts (about 16 or 17) and went about systematically cultivating contacts in each district. I narrowed down lists of possible protagonists in each district till I finally identified the three who were revealing themselves to me the most.

What did the process of interviewing these men and their families look like at a practical level?
I explained to the three interviewees that I was writing a book about the perpetrators in order to be able to change the way we talk about hate so that the next generation and people in general, people who are confused can read it. I told them, “Look, there’s a large majority of people who don’t know what it’s like to be actually involved in something like this, so they’re involved at the periphery. Maybe if they hear your stories, something might change. Because us saying something from the outside will be very patronising.” So, they agreed to the process, to being interviewed, to being taped.

I’d set up a time and date with each of them, spend time, chat a lot. In the case of Dungar (a Bhil from a tribal district) I’d go spend two or three days at a time in his village. I’d observe the process of sowing the corn, etc., I’d meet them in various settings. Sometimes it would be the place I was staying in in Gujarat, sometimes it would be the place that was convenient for them. The interviews would typically take two to three hours each. I’d set up a question and just let them talk, and keep asking, “And then what happened?”

I started with 2002, and I went backwards and forwards from there – I needed the whole chronology. I made a list of what was missing from the timeline, where the contradictions were. I’d go back and check with them. Then I realised I needed much more detail – I’d go back and ask them what they ate that day, what they wore that day, the expression on the face of the person they were talking to.

Two out of the three protagonists lied to me in various ways, so I had to ensure I caught their lies by asking them to tell me a second time and a third time, by asking people who knew them. I interviewed lots of people who knew the protagonists or who knew the basics of what was happening at the time. It was a 10-12 hour-a-day project, which required full-time dedication from me for three years. It took me three months to transcribe all the interviews – I think I transcribed over two and a half lakh words.

Amongst other matters, The Anatomy of Hate recounts episodes of brutal violence. What were some of the considerations (ethical, practical) you had to work through while writing those scenes?
I wasn’t thinking about sparing the reader, but I didn’t want these to be voyeuristic at all. I also didn’t want to over-write these scenes – I think it takes away from the actual experience of being in that space, I don’t want to tell the reader how to feel. I wanted to be an observer of the gut-wrenching violence without telling them it was gut-wrenching – let them feel it. I wrote the first draft with a great deal of fear because I’d never written narrative non-fiction before.

I found that certain characters weren’t sharp enough because I’d hidden too much of what they’d done, of what they were about. I didn’t want to spare people the nuts and bolts of the violence on, before, and after 2002. The important thing was to get the balance right, especially with the sexual violence cases.

How did get your interviewees to be quite so forthcoming? We receive a remarkable level of insight into their lives.
The reason Pranav opened himself up to me was because by then he was already working with other radicalised people and trying to un-radicalise them, trying to unravel the process that he had been through. He went from being an almost-fanatic to a left liberal. He wanted to expose other people who were on the fringes of or in the Sangh Parivar to this process. He felt that the book could be a pedagogical tool, that it could be cathartic for a whole lot of people.

Dungar also bought into that idea. I asked Dungar why he was confessing to me on tape about burning down houses of Muslims in 2002, especially since he lied to the court about it and made the witnesses turn hostile. I said to him: “Why are you telling me the truth...if I submit what you’re telling me to court, you could go to jail.”

He said, “First, I trust you. But more important, I believe in this process. I don’t want my children to grow up without knowing the guilt and the fear, the lack of respect, the lack of sense of self that I have had to live with, and the things I have had to do. I want my children, the next generation to see this, so that they can grow up differently.”

It was the best validation I could get to know that these two people and the wife of the third believed in the project. I interviewed nearly a hundred others, it wasn’t that they didn’t believe in that project, but that they were often in the middle of fighting court cases, and they thought the dots would join back to them if they spoke about the details of their lives.

Were there books of a similar nature that were helpful in helping you decide and mould the form and tone of yours?
I had decided fairly early that this was the form I wanted the book to take – with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at the back of my mind. I learned a lot from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism – in particular, the chapters where she discusses the reasons all of Europe hated Jews in the centuries before the rise of Nazi Germany. That informed my decision to find out why in villages such as where Dungar lives (as a Bhil), the Bhils and Muslims hated one another. And, in Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers, which is about the Rwanda genocide, he pointed out that the most important thing to write about or explain in a genocide is not the individual acts of crime but the fact that a whole group of people are behind it, it is the complicity of this large section of people that becomes crucial in writing about mass violence or a genocide.

There’s a moment, about sixty pages in, when you write, “It may appear at this juncture in the story that Suresh’s life was moving inexorably towards 28 February 2002…But that is merely the distortion caused by telling this story backwards. Hindsight that prevents us from looking carefully at other potential Sureshs growing up in Chharanagar. Why him and not his two brothers, for instance?” Did you ever arrive at a theory or an answer about why the two brothers didn’t end up participating in the 2002 violence the way Suresh did?
Suresh was the first-born, the oldest male child. Because he had polio, he had one bad leg. His father would say that he didn’t know who his wife had slept with to produce a son like Suresh. He grew up with this kind of verbal abuse and negation of his identity throughout his childhood, which his brothers did not. No two siblings are alike. You may have grown up in the same neighbourhood, but you may respond to the same stimuli in opposite ways.

The community Suresh comes from, the Chharas, were declared a criminal tribe by the British in 1871. They were one of over a hundred nomadic tribes that were declared criminal because the British wanted to account for their movements. They weren’t de-criminalised till about five years after Independence.

They grew up in an environment where being a criminal was de-facto at birth for over a hundred and fifty years. The stigma continued long after, the structural violence by the state continued – they were marginalised, they couldn’t go to school, there weren’t drains or water supply in those areas. There wasn’t a way to have a bath every day.

We take these things for granted, we don’t know what it’s like to not have water. We don’t know how that can affect your mind, how it can affect you when you don’t have an affirming identity – the markers are different. What is normal in Chharanagar isn’t normal in the rest of Ahmedabad or the rest of Gujarat.

There is a way in which violence seeps into the everyday for the Chharas, with their history of discrimination as criminal tribes. It starts with the colourful, expletive-ridden language many use. I asked a woman in Chharanagar about the cliché that had been repeated to me about how women in their tribal community have more control than in other places. She said, “Achha, that’s what people are saying?” She pulled her thin, wiry daughter out of the dark, and narrated a story about how she’d been kept hungry for four days by her in-laws.

She said, “Her mother-in-law starved her, gave her stale rotis to eat…if I see that bitch, I’ll stuff her arsehole with chillis and put salt in her cunt.” Her approximately eight-year-old grandkid listened and laughed in the background as he munched on his packet of Funflips.

They don’t have recourse to the law because they are Chharas. Then, someone like Suresh with a predilection for anger and violence becomes the go-to person to sort out problems – a moneylender would come to Suresh to get his debts repaid, and Suresh would beat the crap out of those who owed the moneylender. The law doesn’t extend to particular areas, they’ve fallen off the map and are neglected, there are areas we choose to look past such as people sleeping under the flyover, we are complicit in this violence in some way.

One of Suresh’s brothers displayed the same predilection for violence (he’d humiliate and abuse his wife), but he wasn’t the same kind of dada figure in the area. Suresh happened to be groomed by the Bajrang Dal to take a leadership role in that area, and this is what leadership meant, this is what it still means in this country: using violence to establish a position of supremacy and power. Those are the real levers of upward mobility.

In our society, across most of the country actually, power doesn’t lie in the normative spaces of the law, it lies in the non-reading and -writing levers. Dungar can become a graduate but still ends up as construction labour, and the only thing that allows him to move out of the space is joining the Sangh. Suresh gets power through his violence and appropriating that through the Sangh increases his power many-fold.

What are the ways in which power is acquired in this country? It is violence. If we want to reduce violence in this country, we need to change how power works in the country. As long as we continue to see these as aberrations and not as the norm, we’re missing the woods for the trees. We’re going into an election where we’re talking about and anticipating violence, and we’ve seen an increase in lynching which is a mutated form of the violence we saw in 2002.

When we see mutated forms of violence operating across the country, it should tell us that this is how power operates, this is how power is accumulated. As journalists, our jobs cannot be simply to note where people have deviated from the law. The law, the process of election, matter to only a few people in this country. For the rest of the country, this is how power is acquired. I wrote this book because I wanted to show that if we want to stop violence, this is what we need to look at.