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Back to the Future? No, Forward to Worse. By Radha Kumar*

Last week’s horrific violence in north-east Delhi sparked traumatic memories of the pogroms against Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in 2002. Thankfully, the scale of destruction was much lower this time, but the similarities are deeply disturbing. Once again, ruling party leaders and cadre incited hatred. Once again, the police stood by and even participated (indeed, instances of the latter, such as police attacks on students in Jamia and AMU, were precursors this time). Once again, the Union and state governments were glaringly absent. And once again, the courts have provided little relief.


Yet there are differences too, and they are in many ways even more disturbing. As one of the hundreds of citizens of Delhi who poured out of their homes to combat the 1984 violence and rescue victims, I can never forget the anguish we felt and the horrors we beheld. There was then, as there is today, a total breakdown of trust in both the Union and the city governments. It ran so deep that for some weeks it was we, the citizens, who took over the areas of east Delhi where Sikhs were targeted.


Such agency was not allowed this time around. Looking at what happened in north-east Delhi, I now feel grateful that there was at least an iota of shame in our governments then, that allowed us to requisition the army and CRPF to instantly rescue and shelter the victims. Nor were we arrested for accusing the Rajiv Gandhi administration of turning a blind eye to the communal massacre, or charged with enmity to the Indian state when we did.


The violence in north-east Delhi was a culmination of the Modi administration’s response to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), ongoing for two and a half months. Instead of meeting with the protesters and listening to their legitimate concerns – the CAA is the first Indian law that seeks to discriminate between applicants on communal grounds – the Modi administration allowed protesters to be defamed, beaten up, arrested and charged with sedition. BJP leaders led counter-protests calling for violence, which then ensued. Despite Delhi High Court Justice Murlidhar’s urging the police to file FIRs against them, BJP and affiliated leaders who incited hatred have not been held accountable. Not one, when there are close on a dozen that the media has identified. Instead, Justice Murlidhar has been transferred.

This bias becomes even more blatant when we compare those who have impunity with those who are being tried. The bulk of sedition cases are against the young and vulnerable, students such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and now Shardeel Imam. Some leeway to the young has generally been a norm in our country, as it is in most democracies, because the young will grow and change, and they are not as influential as more seasoned actors.


Far from leeway, we find a merciless twisting of the truth. The latest attack on Khalid by the BJP labels a February speech of his as incitement to violence, leading to the Delhi riots. But a clip of the speech shows Khalid calling for street protests to uphold national unity and Gandhiji’s values. To this extent it can be compared to the students’ demonstrations reading the Preamble to the Indian Constitution.


By contrast, the bulk of those who have impunity are much older. They include Union Minister Anurag Thakur, BJP MP Parvesh Verma and ex-MLA Kapil Mishra. Each should have grown to moderate his views, but together their speeches incited violence more directly than any speech by the students charged with sedition. Thakur and Verma have power and with it should have come responsibility, but instead they choose to loudly deny what the cameras show them doing. The fact that they are neither responsible nor held accountable sends a clear message: BJP leaders or affiliates may instigate communal hatred and break the law without consequence, but their opponents must be severely punished even if that requires twisting the law or violating its protective provisions.


In its use of state powers to curb dissent, the Modi administration’s behaviour more closely resembles that of Indira Gandhi’s during the Emergency than Rajiv’s in 1984. It could be described as an amalgam of the two, combining state intimidation with political communalism. But, though Rajiv Gandhi condemnably allowed impunity, he did at least try to address one of the root causes of Hindu-Sikh tensions when he signed the Longowal Accord less than a year later. By contrast, after over 100 deaths and thousands of arrests in UP and Delhi alone (the bulk of them Muslim), the Modi administration appears more determined than ever to persist with the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).


It is quite simply a lie to say that the CAA does not affect Indian Muslims. The media has already reported the cases of two women to whom the Gauhati High Court has denied citizenship even though they have documents and testimony that show generational residence. And the fact that the CAA is the first communal legislation in our country affects all Indians.

It was this point that the youth and women’s protests sought to underline. From December through to this day, in glorious hope, protests across the country – by last count 70 and mounting – have sought for the Indian Constitution to be upheld in letter and in spirit. As the Modi administration seeks to simultaneously defame the protests en bloc and separate them into local occurrences, a tactic which is internally riven but seems to be relatively successful, the media too deal with attacks on protesters, sedition cases and mass arrests as distinct not inter-related events.


Yet the Delhi violence only highlights the fearsome combination of the Modi administration’s political communalism and state intimidation. Umar Khalid’s distant speech was responsible for what happened in Delhi, we are told, not Kapil Mishra’s on the spot incitement. The police appear to be zealously investigating the Muslim mobs’ sources of weapons but not the Hindu mobs’. Of the 800 plus people they have arrested, how many are Hindu and how many Muslim?

For the people of north-east Delhi, the trauma of last week will take years to overcome, if ever. Many parts of the area have undergone communal violence before – the 1947 partition riots when Muslim inhabitants where forced out in murderous riots, 1984 when Sikhs were massacred and now 2020. The fault lines were there for politicians to exploit but that does not excuse what happened nor erase the fear that it might happen again and again, across the country, UP being a case in point. With four years of this administration to go, the future looks much worse than the past.


* Radha Kumar’s latest book is titled Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir (Aleph 2018)

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