Violence in Delhi was part of a familiar playbook

Written by Omkar Goswami

Updated: March 5, 2020 10:02:11 am

Vehicles torched during violence in Mustafabad. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Towards the late evening of October 31, 1984, as Indira Gandhi’s body still lay at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and riots had begun to break out in parts of Delhi, local Congress politicos of Bhajanpura, Gamri and Khajoori Khas sat down to compile their lists. They culled the addresses of Sikh families from the local ration shops and the neighbourhood primary and secondary school registers. They then transferred kerosene from drums that were filled to the brim for distribution on November 1. Armed with addresses and inflammables, they and their mobs were ready for business from sunrise of the next day.

For the first two days and the morning of the third day of November 1984, Congress-led mobs methodically searched out the Sikhs of Bhajanpura, Gamri and Khajoori Khas to kill the males including boys, burn houses with kerosene and phosphorus and rape women. During three months of working in these localities to gather depositions for the Mishra Commission, I got close to a courteous old Sikh gentleman, long retired from the National Archives, who described how he was tied up and made to watch his three sons and two grandsons being rendered immobile, then doused with kerosene and burnt to death. Throughout this mayhem, the police did absolutely nothing, while Rajiv Gandhi talked of how the earth shakes when a big tree falls. When the army came out on the third day, some 400 Sikhs had been massacred in these three contiguous trans-Yamuna neighbourhoods.

Yet, despite this Congress-orchestrated pogrom which claimed over 2,500 lives in Delhi alone, the fact is that Bhajanpura, Gamri, Khajoori Khas, Chand Bagh, Gokulpuri, Maujpur, Jaffrabad, Yamuna Vihar, Karawal Nagar and Dayalpur did not witness any communal mayhem between 1984 and February 2020. The localities are segregated by religion, with Hindus congregating in some areas, and Muslims in others. Most Sikhs, once a sizeable population, have left. A colleague of mine has lived in Bhajanpura since 1989, and vouches that until now he never saw any sectarian violence in the area.

Fast forward to the Delhi elections of 2020. Stung by widespread and largely peaceful demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), led by the youth and young women, the BJP leveraged these protests, especially at Shaheen Bagh, to unleash the worst majoritarian fears. It orchestrated a vicious religion-based discriminatory campaign against the protesters, and, by transitivity, the treacherous minority and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The BJP’s single point hate-filled campaign failed spectacularly. AAP won 62 of the 70 assembly seats, with the BJP garnering a mere eight. For the BJP, therefore, it was time to up the ante from making acrimonious speeches to fashioning communal riots.

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Does anyone truly believe that the ultimatum delivered by BJP leader Kapil Mishra to the Delhi Police to clear up the peaceful sit-down protest near the Jaffrabad metro station, or else “we will have to hit the streets” was an independent act of a Hindutva hothead, in direct contradiction to the party’s diktat? Or that the Hindu goons brought in to the area were merely honest local burghers trying to protect their home and hearth from violence? If you did, you would also believe that the Sikh pogrom of 1984 was spontaneous action of a grief-stricken populace without any rabble-rousing and active participation by local Congress leaders.

The trans-Yamuna riots that began on the night of February 23, seem to have died down. Compared to the Sikh massacres, it seems like a mere blip — leaving behind 47 versus 2,500 dead. Yet, it signals the beginning of using a well-known fascist playbook to incite mob violence.

In that playbook, there must always be enemies. In Nazi Germany, these were the Jews, communists, Catholics, university professors, intellectuals and critics. Here it is the Muslims. You first highlight their “differences” and “dishonesties”, and use that to discriminate between us, the dependable citizens, and them the treasonous “gaddaars”. Then you menacingly threaten the inevitability of “people’s wrath” against the traitors. When you have stirred that pot sufficiently to goad the mob on to the streets, you then blame the seditious minority for the violence.

Consider Kristallnacht in November 1938 — when Adolf Hitler’s stormtroopers went on a rampage in Berlin, destroying Jewish stores, synagogues and killing over a hundred Jews, while the police stood by and let it happen.

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When you play out the duplicitous minority story often enough and create enough symbolic differences between the true “us” and traitorous “them”, the middle class majority will believe in it. Then you are in sight of your ultimate goal: Victory through disenfranchisement.

Unless we have strong enough institutions to protect the basic principle of equality for all, the Delhi riots of February 2020 are a trailer to many more. In Delhi; in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh; in Haryana; and in West Bengal, as the BJP tries to wrest control. The goons have advanced from lynching individual cattle traders to larger mob violence. With tacit state support, these can expand to mini pogroms where, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in this paper, the chant of “Jai Shri Ram” won’t be a call to piety but a war cry for killing.

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And so, the minority is being caged. The majority is becoming even more majoritarian. Secular sanity is being corralled to frightened alleys. All for the BJP to come back even more powerful in 2024. That’s the agenda. Riots and pogrom are the tools. Who will protest against this destruction of India? And how?

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 5, 2020 under the title ‘A majoritarian majority’. The writer is chairperson of CERG Advisory Private Limited.

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