Hindu mob beating up a Muslim man during riots in New Delhi on Monday. Photograph by Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
If parts of Delhi resemble a warzone, the information coming out of there is subject to the ‘fog of war’. It is difficult to verify every piece of horrific video, witness testimony and SOS messages. But the broad picture is increasingly clear. There is certainly enough preliminary evidence to indicate two things.
One, the violence is not spontaneous but, at least partly, organised. The inflammable speech of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kapil Mishra, also an ex-Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), the mobilisation of large armed crowds simultaneously at so many different locations, the particular targeting of minority economic establishments and markets, all point to a degree of planning and co-ordination. In fact, most riots in India are organised and display these features.
Two, there is at least a substantial degree of State complicity. Social media is awash with videos documenting the blatantly partisan role of the police. In one video, the police are seen assaulting a group of injured men lying on a roadside, who appear to be Muslim, forcing them to chant the national anthem, spitting out the word ‘azadi’ (freedom) as they rain their lathis on them. In another video, a seemingly right-wing rioter shows on camera how they are attacking the ‘mulle’, and shouts: “The police are with us”. As the camera pans around, one can see a few policemen in the mob. In yet another video, the police are seen escorting the right wing crowd, goading them in their attacks.
There will soon be the return of ‘normalcy’ to Delhi. That loaded word which Delhi journalists use in the context of Kashmir to signify the return of subtler forms of persecution.
But perhaps the most damning testimony of state complicity is the very fact that full blown violence has gone unchecked in the national capital for two entire days. It is simply not conceivable that the mob could have inflicted so much damage for so long unless it was allowed to by the police. National capital’s police report to Home Minister Amit Shah, who had made amply clear of what he thinks of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters in his election speeches. In this respect too, these riots echo those that have gone past, including 1984 and 2002, where the State either looked away or facilitated the carnage.
The intriguing part therefore is not the willingness or capacity of the right wing to foment violence (both are well documented) but the timing. The right-wing has a remarkable ability to mobilise street power at short notice. Within a day of Kapil Mishra’s essentially ‘direct action’ call, hordes of armed mobs enveloped different quarters of North-East Delhi. So why is this happening now? One can’t be certain here, but we can surmise a few reasons.
First, the protests in various Muslim localities were the central political issue for the BJP in the recent Delhi elections. Therefore, the priority was to use the protests as a lightning rod to spread fear among the Hindu population, and polarise them for the elections. Clearing the protest sites, in this view, would be killing the golden goose of propaganda. Now that the elections are over, the right-wing is reverting to a longer term political calculus, emerging as protectors and saviours of a Hindu population ‘besieged’ by anarchy spreading Muslims.
The messaging is simple – ‘we, and only we, know how to deal with these troublesome Muslims, and we will show you how!’
Second, this violence is the likely prelude to a firmer state crackdown on protesters. The ruling party – BJP – would now like the roads cleared, but is still perhaps concerned with the messy fallout of police action. It will be hard to justify the images of police raining batons on women protesters at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere. Despite an enormously formidable propaganda machinery, there are limits to what the ruling party can sell to the public in the name of nationalism.
The violence in JNU was widely condemned, for example, including by people not necessarily opposed to the BJP. However, images of a burning Delhi can whet the appetite of the public for tougher State action, especially if it can be blamed on the ‘provocative’ anti CAA protesters.
The other interesting thing is the place of the violence. Much of the violence is taking place in areas with large adjoining populations of Hindus and Muslims. This is the perfect site for instigating communal tensions, and North-East Delhi witnessed the most incendiary communal campaign in the recently concluded elections, with frequent rallies by BJP’s top leaders including Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanth. The BJP was also able to hold its own here, winning three out of its total of eight seats. Even in many of the seats won by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), such as Mustafabad, voting was likely largely on communal lines, reflected in the dramatic shifts in leads on counting day.
There will soon be the return of ‘normalcy’ to Delhi. That loaded word which Delhi journalists use in the context of Kashmir to signify the return of subtler forms of persecution. But these riots will leave an enduring mark on Delhi. This is not a small town in Uttar Pradesh, which has seen an even more grotesque fashion of brutalisation in the last two months, but the national capital. One can only hope that the journalistic and intellectual community, who call this city home, wake up and face the reality of the Hindu Rashtra staring us in the face.
Asim Ali is a writer and researcher working for the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.