Why do riots erupt?

The Delhi violence show that hate campaigns have consequences.

Published : Mar 12, 2020 07:00 IST

Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol a street vandalised in the violence in North East Delhi on February 27.

Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol a street vandalised in the violence in North East Delhi on February 27.

“It was a riot foretold,” the veteran, highly respected journalist, Jawed M. Ansari told a television channel on the night of February 26. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval won admiration for his brave and sensible action in going to the crowds at midnight, listening patiently to their complaints and offering “my word of honour” for redress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah did what they are best at doing respectively, tweeting and blowing hot air in air-conditioned comfort. Along with administrative ineptitude, both bear a heavy responsibility for creating the atmosphere of hate which produces violence.

The police are not free from blame either. The Uttar Pradesh police’s behaviour at Aligarh Muslim University and that of the Delhi Police at Jamia Millia Islamia were warning enough. One hopes that brave, upright activists like Harsh Mander and Farah Naqvi will organise a Citizens’ Tribunal on the Delhi outrages just as the brave Teesta Setalvad did on the Gujarat pogrom on Modi’s watch. She has suffered a lot by the vendetta let loose on her.

The proceedings in two courts on February 26 tell the story. In the Supreme Court, Justice K.M. Joseph said: “Lack of professionalism of the police is the main problem here. If you had not allowed people to get away after inflammatory remarks, all this would not have happened. If you act the way law requires to act, you will see the difference.

“This will happen if you allow people to get away. Unless you get the police to act, there will be no difference. Look at how the police acts in the U.K. Do they require somebody’s nod? If somebody makes an inflammatory remark, police swings into action immediately” (Krishnadas Rajgopal, The Hindu, ; February 27).

In the Delhi High Court, Justices S. Muralidhar and Talwant Singh went to the very root of the problem. Why did the police not register first information reports (FIRs) against the BJP leaders, including three legislators , accused of making hate speeches: Kapil Mishra, Abhay Verma (MLA), Parvesh Verma (MP) and Anurag Thakur (MP)? Why, indeed. The police were asked to report to the court on February 27. The petitioners, Harsh Mander and Farah Naqvi, had submitted four tell-tale video clips to the court. The court observed that they “ex facie appear to be answering the description of the crime of hate speech” under Sections 153 A and B of the Indian Penal Code. Offences tried under both are cognisable and non-bailable. The riots erupted in the evening of February 23, Sunday (see Shiv Sunny’s blow-by-blow account in Hindustan Times, February 27). Justice Muralidhar was transferred swiftly thereafter at midnight to the Punjab and Haryana High Court on February 27. Another bench, comprising Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Hari Shankar, magnanimously granted adjournment until April 13.

The Economist of February 29 has a report by its Delhi correspondent who went to the root of the matter, namely, the hate campaign. “Inflammatory rhetoric from Mr Modi’s party makes things worse. During local elections in the capital in February, one of his candidates led crowds in chants of “Shoot the traitors!” In reference to groups protesting the citizenship law.”

Indeed, Modi’s and Amit Shah’s rhetoric virtually delegitimised the opposition parties with whom in any democracy the ruling party must cooperate. Veiled references to Muslims did not escape notice. According to The Economist , the riots were triggered by a local politician who declared that if the sit-in by Muslim women protesting against the citizenship law was not lifted by the time United States President Donald Trump left India, “his supporters would no longer remain peaceful. Soon after, mobs went on the rampage in Muslim neighbourhoods, often with police looking mutely on, or, say many witnesses, aiding the attackers.”

The Telegraph’s correspondent reported that “the violence escalated on Monday [ February 24]”. A schoolteacher told the reporter, “Why are these groups hoisting saffron flags on Hindu households? This violence is well planned and organised and is the direct result of incitement by BJP leader Mishra. The police did not take any action against him when he held a procession on Sunday provoking his supporters to clear the peaceful protest” ( The Telegraph , February 25). The Indian Express (February 26) reported the same charge by the victims: build-up of hate led to violence. On February 24, the Minister of State for Home said that the violence was timed for President Donald Trump’s visit.

From dawn to sunset umpteen Indians insult, intimidate or violently attack umpteen other Indians. This does not lead to riots unless two conditions are fulfilled: the aggressor and the victim belong to different communities and, this is criminal, the atmosphere had been charged previously with communal hate. Crowds on both sides then enlist themselves, and a riot begins. The real perpetrators of the riot are not the two individuals, but those who vitiate the atmosphere with hate, which draws the crowds to take sides in a petty incident. This is done by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its offspring, the Jana Sangh and the BJP.

Riots had declined after Partition. The Sangh Parivar revived the bitterness and went to work feasting on the hate and violence it had calculatedly produced.

This explains why communal riots erupt over insignificant incidents. They were discussed at the National Integration Council when it met in Srinagar in June 1968. Union Home Minister Y.B. Chavan deposed to this phenomenon. “Coming to the causes of communal riots, we know they always start from some insignificant incident, but suddenly they spread to the whole community. Therefore, we have come to the conclusion that this cannot be explained by these small insignificant incidents, but there are some dangerous spots in the minds of men like distrust which ultimately erupt into communal riots.” He put it neatly: “It is not merely what starts the riots that should be considered but what is behind the riots.”

It is not possible for any government to anticipate the immediate cause of the eruption of violence, but it should be possible for a reasonably vigilant government to be aware of a situation conducive to such an outbreak. As the Jaganmohan Reddy Commission on the Ahmedabad disturbances of 1969 put it (paragraph 6.59, page 67 of the report): “Whilst this is so, whether from such a communal atmosphere to expect that the government should anticipate with any precision that communal riots will erupt, and, if so, when, would be to attribute to its agencies a sixth sense, a sense of anticipation well-nigh difficult to postulate, inasmuch as communal riots erupt on such insignificant and minor incidents which in themselves are difficult to predict. What could be expected from law-enforcing and governmental agencies is a proper appreciation of the communal atmosphere prevailing in a State, in a town or in any particular place or locality, to anticipate trouble and to take steps to nip it in the bud or to deal with it firmly when such a situation does arise. In our view, on the facts disclosed by the governmental and other records already referred to, the law-enforcing agencies could not but have known that the communal atmosphere in Ahmedabad had become tense.”

Culpability rests, therefore, on those who create communal tension. The Home Ministry presented to the council a comprehensive review of the riots. It put paid to the view that the riots were but a continuation of those that engulfed the entire north in 1947 during Partition. It said, instead: “From 1954 to 1960 there was a clear and consistent downward trend, 1960 being a remarkably good year with only 26 communal incidents in the whole country. This trend was sharply reversed in 1961. The increase was, however, largely in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. There was a substantial fall during the next two years indicating stabilisation of the situation. 1964 was an abnormal year when largely as a repercussion of serious communal riots in East Pakistan there was large-scale communal violence in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. There was no marked rise in communal incidents in other parts of the country.” The reversal of the trend in 1961 was owing to the riots in Jabalpur, which Prof. Paul R. Brass at the University of Washington calls “the turning point” in the rise of communal violence.

Anatomy of riots

A classic work on hate speech establishes beyond doubt that speech has consequences. Jeremy Waldron is University Professor, New York University School of Law, and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, University of Oxford. He quotes from the posters put up in some cities in the U.S. One of them is relevant to the situation in India. “Don’t be fooled into thinking you are welcome here. The society around you may seem hospitable and non-discriminatory, but the truth is that you are not wanted, and you and your families will be shunned, excluded, beaten, and driven out, whenever we can get away with it. We may have to keep a low profile right now. But don’t get too comfortable. Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past. Be afraid.”

Waldron writes: “The harm that expressions of racial hatred do is harm in the first instance to the groups who are denounced or bestialised in the racist pamphlets and billboards.”

Ward Berenschot’s Riot Politics is another illuminating work. “Hindu-nationalist organisations stepped up their activities in the months preceding riots. According to several informants, the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] and the RSS started organising new weekly meetings inside the chowks in Isanpur in the months before the riots, which were then discontinued after the riots. This increased activity of VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal units was also noted in other parts of Gujarat, which suggests that the preparation for the violence had been under way before the burning of the train coach in Godhra.”

Here is a brief survey of the saffronised rake’s progress: 1. Jabalpur, 1961; 2. Ahmedabad, 1969; 3. Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad, 1970; 4. Thalassery, 1971; 5. Jamshedpur, 1979; 6. Kanyakumari, 1982; 7. Meerut, 1982; 8. Bhagalpur, 1989; 9. Mumbai, 2002-3; 10. Gujarat, 2002; and 11. Delhi, 2020. It was most unfortunate that the Supreme Court appointed none other than R.K. Raghavan, former chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to head the Special Investigation Team. The amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran’s report on its work is able and thorough, as one would expect of an upright lawyer. This is only an illustrative record, not a complete one.

But to complete their programme, it is not enough for the hatemongers to foul the atmosphere. They need also a standing machinery to finish the job.

Political scientists have studied the anatomy of riots. One of them is Prof. Brass. He has tirelessly done extensive fieldwork in Uttar Pradesh. His work Theft of an Idol is of seminal importance (Princeton University Press, 1997). He holds: “The riotous events I have here documented were not primarily ‘spontaneous’ occurrences or chance happenings and that there were identifiable culprits who had conspired to produce or who had committed acts either designed to produce or whose effects were to produce riotous and murderous results.…

“Although most people everywhere are capable of committing acts of violence under a variety of circumstances, the kinds of violence that are committed in ‘communal riots’ are, I believe, undertaken mostly by ‘specialists’, who are ready to be called out on such occasions, who profit from it, and whose activities profit others who may or may not be actually paying for the violence carried out. Such regions have developed what I call ‘institutionalised riot systems’, in which known actors specialise in the conversion of incidents between members of different communities into ‘communal riots’. Even here, however, not every such incident is allowed to develop into a ‘riot’. When full-fledged riots develop, the local politicians and authorities are often either incompetent or they themselves desire the riots to take place, and are willing to place a communal interpretation on the precipitating incidents.”

Brass amplifies: “I believe that all riot-prone cities and towns do have to a greater or lesser degree such informal organisational networks. They also have something else, which is central to the notion of the institutionalised riot systems, namely, a network of persons who maintain communal, racial, and other ethnic relations in a state of tension, of readiness for riots. Here I part company definitively with the ‘sequence’ theorists of collective action, who imagine a state of tension arising out of grievances, frustrations, and discriminations in the relations between the two communities, which require only the proverbial spark to ignite it. On the contrary, there are regular fire-tenders who maintain the fuel at a combustible level, sometimes stoking it, sometimes letting it smoulder. They are the conversion specialists, who know how to convert a moment of tension into a grander, riotous event.”

The role of the Delhi Police deserves a thorough probe. Some of its members have been caught on video assaulting Muslims and demanding that they shout slogans like Bharat Mata ki Jai . In a revealing report, Shishir Gupta wrote in Hindustan Times (February 28) that “Reports from local residents of the area [Maujpur] suggest many of them were outsiders shipped in from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana on buses.” A thorough Citizens’ Inquiry is necessary on the communal policies and riots in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh since Yogi Adityanath was imposed on it as the Chief Minister by Modi.

On April 22, 1983, Stephen Laurence was murdered in London by five or six white goons. An inquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson was set up. The report runs into 389 pages. It found the attack to be motivated by “racism”; precisely, “the very existence of a sub-culture of obsessive violence, fuelled by racist prejudice and hatred against black people”. The report found “institutional racism” in the police force (paragraph 6.34). It was published as (Cm. 42-62 I) by the Stationery Office in London.

The Bombay High Court noted on July 31, 2014, that the victims of custodial deaths in Maharashtra were Muslims and Dalits (see this writer’s article “Muslims and police”, Frontline , December 26, 2014).

That is what was at play in Delhi from February 23-26, 2020. Nothing less than a thorough probe will do.

The British lawyer Lord Scarman noted the poor representation of Catholics in the police force in Northern Ireland. No one attacked him. But in India the heavens fall whenever anyone points to the gross under-representation of Muslims in the police force throughout India. This leads to the “them” and “us” mentality.

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