State collusion with rioters

Shape of things to come

Print edition : March 27, 2020

Inside a mosque burnt in the violence. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Debris of a building damaged in the violence, in Delhi on March 1. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

TAHIR HUSSAIN, the suspended AAP councillor, being taken to the Karkardooma Court in New Delhi on March 6. Photo: PTI

Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a rally in Kolkata on March 1. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

BJP leader Anurag Thakur, who exhorted the audience with his “Goli maro...” slogan. Photo: PTI

BJP leader Kapil Mishra, whose provocative speeches apparently triggered the violence. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

BJP leader Parvesh Verma, who clubbed the Shaheen Bagh protesters with Kashmiri jehadis. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

The collusion between the government, communal aggressors, the police and activists of the ruling dispensation, which was all too evident in all the days of the Delhi riots, could well indicate what is in store for the country as a whole.

“STUDIES on communal riots in independent India have repeatedly highlighted the collusion between the government, the rioting aggressors, the police and the activists of the ruling dispensations of the time. Even so, the record of the current regime at the Centre is exceptional. It is as though the collusion is steroid-driven. It is characterised by a sort of unparalleled blatancy in flouting democratic and administrative norms and systems as well as in pursuing devious stratagems. The case of the Delhi riots in the last week of February is no different.” This was how former senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and renowned Hindi author Vibhuti Narain Rai said in response to Frontline’s question in the first week of March, even as the Delhi Police claimed that things had returned to normal in the national capital.

Rai went on to add that the blatancy of the collusion and violation of norms during these days was such that the command and control of the Delhi Police was practically shifted to North Block, which houses the Union Home Ministry, marking a grave administrative fault line. “But that was being done without any qualms.” Rai’s observations are founded on his three-and-a-half-decade-long service in the IPS, during which he carried out relentless research on the communalisation of politics and administrative services, including the police and other security agencies. This research reflects in his works such as Shahar Mein Curfew (Curfew in the City), Combating Communal Conflict, and Communal Conflicts: Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India.

Any number of instances can be cited from the period the Delhi riots raged and escalated to phenomenal levels of ferocity—between February 23 and 26—to underscore Rai’s point on “steroid-driven collusion and violation of norms and systems”. These involve the serial transgressions by the Delhi Police, including in organising and leading attacks against the Muslim minority (see story on page 10). These transgressions exposed by media organisations and civil society groups provide stark testimonies of barbarity.

But this “steroid-driven aggression and violation of norms and systems” continued even after the so-called control over the situation in Delhi. As late as March 5, Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh districts adjoining the National Capital Region (NCR), such as Bulandshahar and Ghaziabad, were systematically assaulted by Hindutva activists, guided and controlled by the Sangh Parivar, especially those belonging to its fountainhead the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Beyond these physical attacks on the ground, brazen manifestations of partisan administrative high-handedness too erupted from the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime at the Centre.

Ban on TV channels

In a joint interdepartmental operation piloted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) and supported by the Home Ministry, two Malayalam television channels, Asianet News and Media One News, were banned for 48 hours starting 7:30 p.m. on March 6. The reasons cited for the ban were, once again, marked by unparalleled levels of blatancy and violation of democratic and administrative norms and systems. Such was the level of blatancy in the order that it bordered on the ridiculous.

The two separately issued ban orders accused the channels of “siding with one community” and being “critical towards Delhi Police and RSS”. Both the orders alleged that the channels reported the riots in a manner that “highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community”. In the order against Media One News, the I&B Ministry said that the channel “questions RSS and alleges Delhi Police inaction” and that it “seems to be critical towards Delhi Police and RSS” and focusses on “vandalism of CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] supporters”.

Reacting to the ban, Media One Editor-in-Chief C.L. Thomas told Frontline that in the history of India such a ban had never happened. “While the contents of the ban order are at the same time laughable and foreboding, the manner in which it was implemented is a clear warning to all media houses in the country that they should not criticise the government or its agencies, like the police or their ideological fountainhead. This literally cocks a snook at the very idea of the role of the media in a democracy and the values that have built up our media traditions since the time of the national movement.” The ban evoked nationwide protests from the media, the political class and civil society organisations, ultimately forcing the government to withdraw it in a matter of 15 hours.

‘Orchestrated and planned’

Commenting on the intense phase of the Delhi violence as well as the follow-up physical assaults in western Uttar Pradesh and the attacks at the level of administrative actions, Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said the cumulative net target of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP was to push the country, including the national capital, into a state of permanent communal conflict. “From what one can see over the past three months, including the Delhi incidents and the later intermittent attacks, this is clearly an orchestrated and planned attack that was being crafted over a considerable period of time,” he said.

But a number of official records of the Union Home Ministry and the Delhi Police designate the Delhi riots of 2020 as something confined to about 60 hours between February 23 and 26. These records define them as a series of attacks, clashes and disturbances involving assaulters belonging to two—Hindu and Muslim—communities, which erupted and raged on for 60-plus hours and were eventually brought under control on February 26. Explaining the chronology is an exercise that Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister who also directly controls the Delhi Police, takes up intermittently on a variety of subjects, ranging from the CAA, the National Population Register (NPR), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Against this background, it is interesting to analyse, in chronological terms, the above projection of the Home Ministry and the Delhi Police about the 60-odd hours of communal riot, which was controlled at the end of this period. What this closer analysis unequivocally shows is that the communal warmongering that acquired brutal and barbaric manifestations had not stopped even after the professed end date of February 26. Equally importantly, the genesis of the communal attacks was not on February 23, though the date marked a phenomenal escalation in the scale of the assaults.

Reports from western Uttar Pradesh suggest that the attacks have been going on as a matter of routine all through the week after February 26. Incidents at Bulandshahar on March 4-5 became so intensely violent that it could have ended up in the lynching of three Muslim youths had it not been for the intervention of some peace-loving people and social activists, predominantly belonging to the Hindu community. Just as it is a fallacy to claim that communal attacks stopped after February 26, there are any number of incidents that assert that the climate for the phenomenal escalation of communal, fanatical assaults between February 23 and 26 was being built up over many months.

People’s protests & hate speeches

All these efforts were essentially provoked by the spontaneous people’s upsurge across the country against the passage of the CAA in the second week of December 2019. The fact that these people’s protests had a special emotive content in the national capital, symbolised by the Shaheen Bagh protests led primarily by women and children, also added to and intensified the Hindutva communal manoeuvres. Consider this sequence. On December 24, 2019, barely a fortnight after the passage of the CAA in Parliament and approximately 10 days after the Shaheen Bagh protests began, BJP leader Kapil Mishra likens the women and children protesting at the site to Pakistani agents. He goes on to add that the electoral battle with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly election is as important as winning a war against Pakistan, identifying the Shaheen Bagh protesters with the AAP. Kapil Mishra’s exertions were followed through the election campaign by BJP leaders Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma. Anurag Thakur exhorted the audience with the “Goli maro....” slogan while Parvesh Verma warned that if the AAP were to win it would create a situation where Hindu women would get raped by those who had gathered at Shaheen Bagh. He clubbed the Shaheen Bagh protesters along with Kashmiri jehadis.

These were desperate efforts targeted towards polarising voters on pro- and anti-Hindutva lines and thus defeating the AAP. The election results of February 11 made it clear that this project had come a cropper. In the days following the AAP’s resounding victory, more Shaheen Bagh-type protests emerged in different parts of the NCR, especially North East Delhi. This growing momentum of the protests further angered fierce Hindutva proponents like Kapil Mishra. With new plans to advance the “permanent communal conflict”, Kapil Mishra started his own agitation demanding the clearance of the protest sites in North East Delhi. On February 23 evening, he proclaimed in front of senior city police officials that if the North East Delhi protest sites were not cleared by the day United States President Donald Trump returned from his maiden visit to India, on February 25, he would forcibly evict the protesters. The communal aggression started, as if on cue, within hours. It soon developed into full-fledged rioting over the next two days.

There is still a debate as to how the riots erupted first and as to who threw the first stone and engineered the first assault. The argument from Sangh Parivar activists as well as from a number of political observers was that the BJP and its associates would not initiate a riot when an important visitor like Trump was in the country. On the other side, there was also the argument, again from a clutch of political observers, that the Trump visit provided the perfect cover for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to go for the “killer strike”. Whatever the truth on “who started the riots” is, the fact remains that the collusion between the government, the rioting Hindutva aggressors, the police and the activists of the ruling dispensation was the most prominent factor through all the four days. In spite of this, the Delhi Police in its investigations have primarily targeted Muslims. While Kapil Mishra, whose provocative speeches evidently triggered the violence, has been accorded accentuated security, the case against suspended AAP councillor Tahir Hussain in Chand Bagh for accumulating petrol bombs and being part of the team that attacked police personnel is being aggressively pursued.

‘Support from the system’

A senior Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist based in western Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut summed up this “support from the system” as a reflection of the larger social, political and cultural climate that has been built by the Sangh Parivar over the last six years, and especially since May 2019, when the Modi-led BJP-National Democratic Alliance government came back to power with a thumping majority. “A Modi-Shah driven pro-Hindutva climate has taken over the country, especially north India. So, regardless of the eventual outcome of the investigation into the Delhi riots or even the CAA, the NPR or the NRC, the larger ideological Hindutva project will continue to march in the political, social and cultural spaces.”

The senior activist went on to add that the muted response to the Delhi riots from the majority of secular parties, including the Congress and the AAP, affirmed this ideological hegemony. “I am told that some civil society activists had even suggested to the AAP’s Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to take out a peace march with his 62 MLAs on the second day of the riots. He did not move an inch and that speaks volumes about our hegemony. Now, there is no turning back. These Hindutva gains will be consolidated further and further in the days to come,” the VHP leader told Frontline.

Clearly, the continuing attacks in western Uttar Pradesh as well as the short-lived ban on television channels are clear indicators as to what forms and dimensions these efforts to consolidate the “gains” will take. Not just these but the repeating of the “Goli maro...” slogan across BJP-Sangh Parivar meetings in the country, including at a Kolkata rally addressed by Amit Shah, also points towards the parameters of the game plan. In all probability, this could reflect as a “permanent communal conflict” engineered across the country, although in varying degrees, intensity and proportions.

According to the Meerut-based VHP leader, the Delhi riots must have punctured the sense of resistance growing among sections of the youth along with the spontaneous anti-CAA protests across the country. “There was much talk about reclaiming the language and idiom of secularism through the anti-CAA protests and the symbols used therein such as the tricolour and the Constitution. We think that this battle of symbols would also be decisively won by happenings like the Delhi riots. It is only a matter of time before all these protests wind up, further strengthening the march of the Hindutva forces,” the leader told Frontline, brimming with tremendous confidence. There is little doubt that this is a kind of aggressive confidence that is pregnant with a sense of foreboding. The sense inherent in this is unmistakable. What Delhi witnessed today could well be the shape of things to come in the rest of India.

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