Why is a pogrom called a riot?

BY Manjula Lal| IN Media Practice | 23/04/2002
Why is a pogrom called a riot

Why is a pogrom called a riot?


Old journalistic usages have to be re-examined for the times we live in.


Semantics became center stage again with George Bush`s use of the expression "collateral damage" to refer to civilian casualties in the war against Afghanistan. But while many of us in the media have expressed outrage about this insidious, shameful euphemism for death, the one word which really cannot have shades of meaning, there has been no serious questioning of other instances of homicide -- not amounting to murder -- of the English language.

That old words are being put to new uses in this millennium was forcefully brought home to us after the events of September 11 2001 with the American use of loaded terms like "war on terrorism". It became clear later that what the Americans were waging was a war on Afghanistan, not even a guerilla operation against the Taliban. As the smoke clears, the media must ask itself why it succumbed without a fight to these manipulations of the English language. As an American academic has pointed out, "New ties to Israel notwithstanding, how many how many Indians view Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists? What about Iraq or Somalia? We have already seen questions along these lines begin to arise."

Back home, as the Indian Left loses its grip over public discourse, and the public swallows Americanisms as easily as it does Big Macs and Coke, we forget that the US worldview is so much at odds with that of the rest of the world that accepting their semantics means accepting an entire worldview, entirely Made in America. (Even the numerics are at odds: they call it 9/11, but we cannot, as we are not so illogical as to put the date before the month.) They can dig up pre-World War II terms like `axis of evil` while we are still committed to post-Cold War terminology, less aggressive and much more diplomatic.

Ronald Wright`s book Stolen Continents says in the context of the American Indians, "An entire vocabulary is tainted with prejudice and condescension: whites are soldiers, the Indians are warriors; whites live in towns, the Indians in villages; whites have kings and generals, Indians have chiefs; whites have states, Indians have tribes. Indians have ghost dances, whites have eschatology." One could also point out that Red Indians were so called because Christopher Columbus, thinking he had arrived in India, was surprised to find that the native tribe was more red than brown. While political correctness has substituted the Red for American, the `Indian` survives for no good reason that we can think of, adding to our problems in defining Americans of Indian origin. Moreover, why did the colonising British call the natives of Australia `aborigines` while in India they used the term criminal tribes? If anybody knows, do enlighten us.

Now, after the Gujarat violence, (and also Mumbai 1993) it`s perhaps time to put expressions like "communal riot" under the microscope. Both are words which have long carried a meaning peculiar only to the subcontinent. Why should the word `community` be used to describe a religious group? A community, says the dictionary, consists of "the people who reside in one locality and hare subject to the same laws, have the same interests." Such people may not love each other, but they just don`t one fine day pick up hatchets and kill each other. Religious groups NOT staying together do, it seems. Which brings us to that other word, "riot". More than a decade ago, a riot would typically erupt in a congested area where poorer people lived. A Muslim`s vendor`s cart might be upset by a lumpen Hindu, sparking off a confrontation of the two religious groups. Or a rape by a member of one group would enrage the other. We used to say that it`s always the poor people who get killed in a riot, while those of us living in newer parts of the city continued with our normal lives.

Delhi 1984 changed all that. The poshest colonies in Delhi were where it all began. After that the violence spread to less prosperous areas like Trilokpuri. Members of a particular religion were the

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