Communalism

Flames of hatred

Print edition : November 28, 2014

A heartbroken Israr Khan in his burnt shop at Trilokpuri on October 29. Photo: S. Subramanium

At Trilokpuri after curfew was imposed, on October 27. Photo: S. Subramanium

The recent communal violence in Trilokpuri brings to fore the tensions that have been brewing for some time.

THIS Deepavali, communal harmony in Trilokpuri, a lower-middle- class colony in the heart of the national capital, went up in flames. As Hindus and Muslims attacked each other with stones for three consecutive days from October 23, a long-standing tradition of syncretism and solidarity among the working-class population in this densely populated area was destroyed.

In the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the liberal intelligentsia of the city had made fairly successful attempts to prevent communal tensions. Over the past two years, however, Delhi, like other parts of north India, witnessed small incidents of communal tension. These went largely unreported, and the tension petered out after the initial provocations because of interventions by secular-minded individuals from all communities.

When Trilokpuri erupted on Deepavali, many were not surprised. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pitched Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate two years ago, there has been a regular stream of reports of the Sangh Parivar inciting religious sentiments among Hindus and directing these against Muslims. However, that such frequent incidents of communal violence would occur in Delhi immediately after the BJP captured power came as a surprise for many who had thought of Modi as a non-dogmatic Hindutva leader.

Trilokpuri is a large colony divided into various blocks. First inhabited by Partition refugees in 1947, the area grew to become one of the largest resettlement colonies during the Emergency, when the then Congress government gave 22-square-yard plots to each family. The densely populated Trilokpuri was one of the worst affected areas in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Many Sikhs subsequently moved out. Today, it is an area interspersed with houses built on those 22-square-yard plots and large slums. The residents are mostly Valmikis, Muslims and migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Most of the Valmikis here are sanitation workers with the government and, hence, are economically the most secure of the lot. The Muslims have small shops and businesses around the area. The migrants work as casual labourers all over the national capital. Over a period of time, unemployment among the youth from all communities has led to a spurt in petty crimes in the area, including illegal liquor trade, thefts, and snatching. Small-time criminal gangs operate in the area and also compete with each other, which regularly leads to brawls. Residents told this correspondent that such drunken brawls had never before taken on a communal colour.

On October 23, however, a brawl between some Valmikis and Muslims in front of a makeshift temple called Mata ki Chowki escalated into a full-fledged communal riot. People were busy celebrating Deepavali when the two groups started throwing stones at each other. The next day, the Valmikis, allegedly with the backing of Sunil Vaidya, former BJP legislator from the area, attacked the Muslim blocks with stones. The Muslims retaliated. There was more violence on October 25, and a curfew was imposed.

Many people in the Muslim community believe that the police were complicit with the rioters and that they encouraged the Valmikis to attack on all the three days of violence. “Why was curfew not imposed on the first day itself? The area was on the boil, and yet, the police did not pay any heed to our complaints,” said Danish of Block 27, Trilokpuri.

Activists who visited the site after the riots also alleged that the police were complicit in the incidents. Despite the complaints, however, the role of Vaidya and the Station House Officer (SHO) of the Trilokpuri police station is not being investigated. The Muslim community feels discriminated against also because about 80 per cent of those arrested are Muslims.

The lead-up

The violence appears to have been impulsive, but it was waiting to happen. The Mata ki Chowki was constructed by the Valmikis during this year’s Navaratri, in front of the local mosque. It was supposed to be there for the nine days leading up to Dasara. But the temporary tent remained there until Deepavali, almost a month after it was supposed to be taken down. The Chowki volunteers had loudspeakers blaring out bhajans through the day, which disturbed people offering namaaz across the road. The area was tense well before the violence. Saifuddin of Block 20 said: “We had asked the administration to permit us to erect a tent outside the mosque, which was renovated during Ramzan. The authorities refused. But the Mata ki Chowki is allowed to stay for more than a month. Despite all this, our boys are being picked up. What should we feel about this?”

The Valmikis claim they are within their rights to have the chowki where it stands, on a bit of ground that is the only space that separates them from the Muslims in Block 20. Over the years, it has developed into a place where people interact in the evenings and children play. The chowki was erected in a corner that used to be a dump yard. The Valmikis claim that they cleaned it up for the chowki and allege that the Muslims show no respect for their religious space. The Muslims say they were irked by the constant noise but have never interfered in Hindu religious practices.

Animosities on both sides are running high at the moment. “The Valmikis just like to get drunk and create nuisance in the area. They like violence,” said one Muslim resident. On the other hand, a Valmiki resident said: “The Muslims eat beef and throw the leftovers into our colony. All of them are criminals.”

The Mata ki Chowki incident provided the immediate trigger in an already volatile ground situation. In the past two years, the Sangh Parivar has organised campaigns against cow slaughter in many working-class colonies. Around the same time that Modi’s election campaign was kicking off, a slew of Go Raksha abhiyaans (Cow Protection campaigns) led by little-known organisations mushroomed throughout the capital.

A parallel campaign to reclaim land from Muslims made itself felt in the same period. The Sangh Parivar tried to consolidate landless Hindus, mostly Dalits and migrants, against the city’s resident Muslims. These people were “foreigners”, went the line, and yet they had land in central districts of Delhi.

“In Trilokpuri, the Sangh Parivar became active recently. It had identified the area as a potential site for riots. In July, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, and one of its affiliates, the Hindu Manch, became suddenly active. Specifically, they tried to mobilise the Valmiki community. On the VHP’s 50th anniversary on August 17, the Trilokpuri units of the Hindutva groups took out a rally, with swords, hockey sticks, baseball bats and lathis, from Kalyanpuri to Trilokpuri’s Madina Chowk near Block 33. They raised anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan slogans and made it a point to pass through the Muslim-dominated blocks. I have photographic proof of all these incidents,” said C. Adhikesavan, an advocate in the Supreme Court who is also a member of the peace committee set up after the riots.

He added that the Hindutva groups became extra active recently after it became known that 169 Muslim households in Block 15 would have to be rehabilitated because of Metro rail construction. The government proposed a rehabilitation site next to a Valmiki colony. “The Sangh Parivar, including the BJP MP from the area, Mahesh Giri, campaigned in the Valmiki colonies that criminals were being settled next to them,” said Adhikesavan.

“The riots were aided and abetted by the Sangh Parivar. The VHP held an emergency meeting at midnight on Deepavali day to discuss the future course of action in a primary school here. Sunil Vaidya allegedly collected a mob and attacked Muslims in various places. The situation is even more volatile now as the administration permitted the Valmikis to hold a Jagaran [Bhajan night] on October 31 at the Mata ki Chowki. This was held in the presence of beaming BJP leaders of the area. The police should first arrest Sunil Vaidya, Mahesh Giri and other BJP leaders for inciting communal sentiments. Unfortunately, the police have mostly arrested Muslim youth who had nothing to do with the riots,” he said.

The Sangh Parivar’s attempts to incite communal sentiments across Delhi have never been so stark. Similar incidents were seen in Bawana, Badli, Nandnagri, Seemapuri, Mundka and Bankner—all in outer, semi-rural Delhi. In all these places, existing communitarian-religious practices were communalised in order to pitch Hindus against Muslims.

‘Police complicity’

Political activists have been talking about police complicity under the new dispensation. Kavita Krishnan, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist-Liberation), said: “In Bawana, the police’s role is even more questionable. Here, at the time of Eid, rumours of ‘cow slaughter’ were stoked, in response to which the police conducted ‘raids’ of Muslim homes in a slum cluster. The occasion of a Muslim festival was turned into a climate of terror for them, with Hindutva groups indulging openly in distributing posters and leaflets spreading hatred against the festival, with no action from the police.

“Again, on the eve of Muharram, venom was spread against the impending Taziya procession. Posters and leaflets appeared, branding the Taziya (which is a procession of mourning and self-flagellation) as a ‘show of strength’ by the minority community. The police, which is directly under the Modi government in Delhi, did not assure the minority that they could hold their procession safely without threat of violence. Instead, they told the minority community to curtail the route of the Taziya procession if they wanted to be safe. The minority community complied. Yet, a ‘mahapanchayat’, in the presence of the BJP MLA, with thousands of people from the dominant Jat community, was allowed by the police with the open purpose of preventing the Taziya procession from taking place.”

Political observers believe that the incidents of communal violence in the national capital in the last few months are a continuation of the pattern witnessed in western U.P. The BJP stoked the religious sentiments of Jats in the name of “love jehad” and mobilised the Valmikis to do the rioting. In Delhi, too, the Sangh Parivar’s activities reflect similar attempts. Communal polarisation through riots yielded great results for the BJP in the last parliamentary election. As Delhi gears up for fresh Assembly elections, the BJP seems to rely on similar tactics.

A New Delhi-based senior political observer told Frontline, on the condition of anonymity: “The idea is to break the vote bank of the opposition. Dalits and other marginalised communities voted en masse for the Aam Aadmi Party in the last election. If you can get the Valmikis and a few other communities out of its fold, the BJP will have a better chance to secure a majority in the Delhi Assembly. And it does not necessarily have to be a Hindu-Muslim riot. The votes can be consolidated in favour of the BJP by pitching two Dalit communities against each other too. For instance, Valmikis and Sansis—both voters of the AAP—fought against each other in Majnu ka Tilla around the Deepavali festivities. The BJP lost to the AAP in this constituency by only around 3,383 votes. Polarisation of votes, in whatever way, will be crucial for the BJP in the upcoming election as the party organisation in Delhi is weak and it has no credible leader to project.” Sunil Vaidya, the man allegedly behind the Trilokpuri riots, lost to the AAP candidate, Raju Dhingan, by around 18,000 votes in the previous election. In outer Delhi, too, the AAP has built up a fairly strong organisation.

The tried and tested formula of polarising votes in the name of religion or caste overcomes organisational and leadership failures. Polarisation of the Valmikis in favour of the BJP could yield good results for the party not just in Trilokpuri but in all of Delhi. However, the divisions such electoral tactics create will mark a permanent dent in India’s multicultural social fabric.

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